Thursday, April 11, 2013

{review} desert of the heart

Jane Rule Desert of the Heart (1964)

Fidelity to any human place, except the heart, seems to me a dubious thing.
When Desert of the Heart appeared in 1964, Jane Rule became, she says, "for the media the only lesbian in Canada." It might, nowadays, (thankfully) be hard to see why the book was such a game-changer, but it is certainly far more than just a 'lesbian novel'. 

It engages - generally wittily, sometimes brutally, frequently heart-breakingly - with all manner of conventions about the expectations surrounding how a woman should live her life. It is an engagingly important feminist text, I thought, as well as a thought-provoking examination of contemporary sexual politics. It is also, as Jackie Kaye notes in her introduction to this Virago edition, a "relatively positive work of fiction, where no lesbian dies."

Evelyn Hall goes to Nevada to get a divorce from her husband of sixteen years. She is an educated woman, an English professor, but not, we discover, prone to anything but a quiet dissidence:
She was one of the few women she knew who preferred Mrs to Dr, perhaps because her marriage had been more difficult than her Ph.D. to achieve and maintain... Dr now was her only 'proper' title, but it seemed too easy a solution, or too ironic.
One of the joys of Desert of the Heart is how Evelyn's somewhat stifled inner voice begins a regeneration.

The divorce is her choice - "She was to be divorced, a convention that might be as strange to her as the convention of marriage had been" - and to obtain it she must live in Reno in Frances Packer's boarding house, until the divorce comes though in six weeks' time. Evelyn is prepared for boredom, prepared to read and get on with her academic work, prepared even to rediscover a life alone; but she is not prepared for the effect that Ann Childs will have on her as she crosses off the days until she is free. 



Ann is a permanent resident in the boarding-house: a slot-machine change girl at a casino, easy with her favours - "the child she had always wanted, the friend she had once had, the lover she had never considered." Will she also be Evelyn's salvation from the dull sadness, that "desert of the heart", the "aesthetic distance", her "care about morality"? "But decorum was a climate in which Evelyn lived." Can she lose - and find - herself in "unimportant intimacy"? "Must I be careful?", Evelyn begins to ask herself, as she (of course!) begins to over-intellectualize "the grotesque miracle of love" and whether she is embarking on "an attempted moral suicide".
"Why have you loved me at all?" "Lack of social orientation. Latent homosexuality. Moral amnesia. Masochism. Revenge. But I'm willfully ignorant in these matters. My terms are probably very inaccurate."
You might see here how dangerously close Desert of the Heart runs to a good wallow in the clichés of lesbian melodrama that inform its background (e.g.,. The Well of Loneliness). But that would be, I think, to miss how manneredly Rule deals with her potentially florid material.
If she had never actually made love to another woman, she was intellectually emancipated in all perversions of the flesh, mind and spirit. Her academic training had seen to that.
I addition, the Reno setting works beautifully as a background to the novel. It makes emphatic the fluctuating status (rich/poor, unmarried/married, married/divorced, morality/amorality, fidelity/unfaithfulness, even living/dead) of the characters, and the desert too functions as a clichéd yet powerful image - a sort of demarcated zone signifying both sterility and the potential for (re)development and fulfilment. Its emptiness is particularly potent in contrast to the Hogarthian (Rule's image, not mine!) chaos of the casinos.

So, in sum? A quiet, clever, beautifully written, heart-breaking love story.

Highly recommended.

14 comments:

  1. Fascinating! I've never heard of this author - I'm off to learn more about her & see what else she wrote.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is my first one by her, but I see down below that Michelle has another one on her list. I wonder if this is the sort of book that leaves the author forever trying to live it down!

      Delete
  2. Replies
    1. It is well worth it - the overwrought moral arguments (homosexuality as a moral suicide...) made me all 'ho-hum', but the core of the story is very powerful.

      Delete
  3. Really interesting! I like Evelyn Hall's thoughts on her title -- it's something that I've thought a lot about myself. I will definitely be looking for this book!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was so happy the day I could be Dr (straight off to the bank to change all the cards!), but, then, I am not married (and, in Evelyn's case, her higher economic status within her marriage definitely added another nuance to her decision to be Mrs).

      Delete
  4. Great review! I have been meaning to read this for some time now, being curious to see how the writing compares to the 1985 film adaptation of it. Have you watched that, by the way?
    Another one of her books which I am looking forward to reading is 'This Is Not For You'. Have you read any of her other works?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Michelle: no, I've not seen the film, but I will keep an eye out for it. I am keen to read more of her works now, as her writing really is lovely.

      Delete
  5. New to me as well. Now to go and learn a bit more about her.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm going to investigate too! Hope you find something that catches your fancy, Mystica.

      Delete
  6. I read this a few years ago and now remember little about it other than that I enjoyed it. There are fragments of details about the working life of a change girl. Now I want to go back to it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. [Scurries off to read your review!] I couldn't quite get my head around how the change girls operated - were they up on a raised catwalk sort of thing - it seemed ghastly hard heavy work. I like your point about Anne's job falling somewhere between caring and indifference. It was difficult to nail down the appeal!

      Delete
  7. Like elizabeth, I very much like that first quotation. Vicki, I can't ever visit this blog without carrying off a pile of new books!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jenny: and likewise! Perhaps we ought to go all German and be Frau Doktor.

      Delete

{READ IN 2018}

  • FEBRUARY
  • 30.
  • 29.
  • 28.
  • 27.
  • 26. The Grave's a Fine & Private Place - Alan Bradley
  • 25. This is What Happened - Mick Herron
  • 24. London Rules - Mick Herron
  • 23. The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White
  • 22. Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed - Alan Bradley
  • 21. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust - Alan Bradley
  • 20. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches - Alan Bradley
  • 19. Speaking from Among the Bones - Alan Bradley
  • JANUARY
  • 18. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
  • 17. Miss Ranskill Comes Home - Barbara Euphan Todd
  • 16. The Long Arm of the Law - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 15. Nobody Walks - Mick Herron
  • 14. The Talented Mr Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
  • 13. Portrait of a Murderer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 12. Murder is a Waiting Game - Anthony Gilbert
  • 11. Tenant for the Tomb - Anthony Gilbert
  • 10. Death Wears a Mask - Anthony Gilbert
  • 9. Night Encounter - Anthony Gilbert
  • 8. The Visitor - Anthony Gilbert
  • 7. The Looking Glass Murder - Anthony Gilbert
  • 6. The Voice - Anthony Gilbert
  • 5. The Fingerprint - Anthony Gilbert
  • 4. Ring for a Noose - Anthony Gilbert
  • 3. No Dust in the Attic - Anthony Gilbert
  • 2. Uncertain Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 1. She Shall Died - Anthony Gilbert

{READ IN 2017}

  • DECEMBER
  • 134. Third Crime Lucky - Anthony Gilbert
  • 133. Death Takes a Wife - Anthony Gilbert
  • 132. Death Against the Clock - Anthony Gilbert
  • 131. Give Death a Name - Anthony Gilbert
  • 130. Riddle of a Lady - Anthony Gilbert
  • 129. And Death Came Too - Anthony Gilbert
  • 128. Snake in the Grass - Anthony Gilbert
  • 127. Footsteps Behind Me - Anthony Gilbert
  • 126. Miss Pinnegar Disappears - Anthony Gilbert
  • 125. Lady-Killer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 124. A Nice Cup of Tea - Anthony Gilbert
  • 123. Die in the Dark - Anthony Gilbert
  • 122. Death in the Wrong Room - Anthony Gilbert
  • 121. The Spinster's Secret - Anthony Gilbert
  • 120. Lift up the Lid - Anthony Gilbert
  • 119. Don't Open the Door - Anthony Gilbert
  • 118. The Black Stage - Anthony Gilbert
  • 117. A Spy for Mr Crook - Anthony Gilbert
  • 116. The Scarlet Button - Anthony Gilbert
  • 115. He Came by Night - Anthony Gilbert
  • 114. Something Nasty in the Woodshed - Anthony Gilbert
  • NOVEMBER
  • 113. Death in the Blackout - Anthony Gilbert
  • 112. The Woman in Red - Anthony Gilbert
  • 111. The Vanishing Corpse - Anthony Gilbert
  • 110. London Crimes - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 109. The Midnight Line - Anthony Gilbert
  • 108. The Clock in the Hatbox - Anthony Gilbert
  • 107. Dear Dead Woman - Anthony Gilbert
  • 106. The Bell of Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 105. Treason in my Breast - Anthony Gilbert
  • 104. Murder has no Tongue - Anthony Gilbert
  • 103. The Man who Wasn't There - Anthony Gilbert
  • OCTOBER
  • 102. Murder by Experts - Anthony Gilbert
  • 101. The Perfect Murder Case - Christopher Bush
  • 100. The Plumley Inheritance - Christopher Bush
  • 99. Spy - Bernard Newman
  • 98. Cargo of Eagles - Margery Allingham & Philip Youngman Carter
  • 97. The Mind Readers - Margery Allingham
  • SEPTEMBER
  • 96. The China Governess - Margery Allingham
  • 95. Hide My Eyes - Margery Allingham
  • 94. The Beckoning Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 93. The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham
  • 92. More Work for the Undertaker - Margery Allingham
  • 91. Coroner's Pidgin - Margery Allingham
  • 90. Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham
  • 89. The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham
  • 88. The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
  • 87. Dancers in Mourning - Margery Allingham
  • AUGUST
  • 86. Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
  • 85. Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
  • 84. Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
  • 83. Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham
  • 82. Look to the Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 81. Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
  • 80. The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
  • 79. The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham
  • 78. Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
  • 77. No Man's Land - David Baldacci
  • 76. The Escape - David Baldacci
  • 75. The Forgotten - David Baldacci
  • 74. Zero Day - David Baldacci
  • JULY
  • 73. Pilgrim's Rest - Patricia Wentworth
  • 72. The Case is Closed - Patricia Wentworth
  • 71. The Watersplash - Patricia Wentworth
  • 70. Lonesome Road - Patricia Wentworth
  • 69. The Listening Eye - Patricia Wentworth
  • 68. Through the Wall - Patricia Wentworth
  • 67. Out of the Past - Patricia Wentworth
  • 66. Mistress - Amanda Quick
  • 65. The Black Widow - Daniel Silva
  • 64. The Narrow - Michael Connelly
  • 63. The Poet - Michael Connelly
  • 62. The Visitor - Lee Child
  • 61. No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories - Lee Child
  • JUNE
  • 60. The Queen's Accomplice - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 59. Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 58. The PM's Secret Agent - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 57. His Majesty's Hope - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 56. Princess Elizabeth's Spy - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 55. Mr Churchill's Secretary - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 54. A Lesson in Secrets - Jacqueline Winspear
  • 53. Hit & Run - Lawrence Block
  • 52. Hit Parade - Lawrence Block
  • 51. Hit List - Lawrence Block
  • 50. Six Were Present - E. R. Punshon
  • 49. Triple Quest - E. R. Punshon
  • MAY
  • 48. Dark is the Clue - E. R. Punshon
  • 47. Brought to Light - E. R. Punshon
  • 46. Strange Ending - E. R. Punshon
  • 45. The Attending Truth - E. R. Punshon
  • 44. The Golden Dagger - E. R. Punshon
  • 43. The Secret Search - E. R. Punshon
  • 42. Spook Street - Mick Herron
  • 41. Real Tigers - Mick Herron
  • 40. Dead Lions - Mick Herron
  • 39. Slow Horses - Mick Herron
  • APRIL
  • 38. Everybody Always Tells - E. R. Punshon
  • 37. So Many Doors - E. R. Punshon
  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • MARCH
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • FEBRUARY
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • JANUARY
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore