I started reading London, ON-based Irish author Emma Donoghue’s 2007 novel Landing at about eleven o’clock at night thinking I would read a chapter or two and then drop off to sleep. At two o’clock in the morning, eyes barely still open but mind racing, I had to force myself to put the book down. It’s not that there’s anything explicitly extraordinary about Landing; in fact, it’s a realist novel that’s quite ordinary and down-to-earth. It’s a book about the kinds of people you know, in situations you can relate to, in places you recognize (even if you’ve never been there). Landing is essentially (lesbian) comfort food in book form. But it’s perhaps those very qualities, combined with Donoghue’s exceptional talents for dialogue, characterization, and old-fashioned storytelling, that make Landing the kind of book that keeps you up at night.
Landing doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a love story. The lovers are the epitome of opposites attract: Jude is a twenty-five year old archivist born, raised, and still living in a small town in Southwestern Ontario; Síle (an Irish name pronounced ‘Sheila’) is a thirty-nine year old flight attendant from Dublin who considers herself a citizen of the world. The funny thing is, Jude is really an eighty-year-old in disguise, whereas Síle still has the stamina of an eighteen-year-old. Also, Jude is a rural butch, and Síle is a classy urban femme. Despite these differences, Donoghue quite convincingly paints a picture of the slow development of genuine love between these two women. I never doubted the attraction between them or their affection for each other for a second. Cass over at the fabulous book blog Bonjour, Cass! thought Jude was boring and didn’t understand why Síle liked her; maybe it’s because I like quiet, nerdy butch types, and am also familiar with the peculiarities of folks who grew up in Canadian small-towns, but I loved Jude. I would totally date her—you know, if she was a real person and such.
Like every romance, Landing features obstacles that the lovers must overcome. There’s the geographical distance, of course; but Jude and Síle also have a few more to contend with: their age difference, for one. With that comes some awkwardness about their different financial situations and some generational misunderstandings, particularly about their sexual identities. On the one hand, Síle identifies straight-forwardly as a lesbian; Jude, on the other hand, is definitely queer, but is also a small-town tomboy who foolishly married her best guy friend at eighteen. Up until she and Síle get together, Jude still occasionally sleeps with her ex, because, well, he is a cool guy and you know, it’s a town of 600 people and there aren’t a lot of options. When Síle confronts Jude about this, she says: “I thought you were a dyke! So you’re still bi, is that what you’re telling me?” Jude replies coolly: “Those are your words.” Donoghue does a great job of addressing these different conceptions of queerness, but also, wisely, lets Síle move on when it’s clear Jude’s past relationships with men are, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant.
There are also a myriad of cultural differences that Jude and Síle have to negotiate, the rural/urban divide being the most significant. I thought it was really great that Donoghue took this on, since it’s a difference that’s often overlooked–especially given that queer people choosing to live in rural areas are frequently thought not to exist at all. Interestingly, Síle’s biracial heritage (her background is South Asian as well as Irish) doesn’t play as large a role as you might expect. It’s not that Donoghue doesn’t address Síle’s racial difference, especially because she’s from a place where there aren’t a lot of brown faces–Síle remarks when in Toronto how nice it is to see others who look like her–but her ethnicity is never at the foreground of who she is.
Landing actually deals with queerness in much the same way; when it’s relevant, it’s relevant. When it’s not, it’s not. In passing, for example, the novel remarks on homophobia: some kids in Dublin ask Jude and Síle “Are yiz lezzies?” Síle tells them “We are … and thanks for asking.” They drive by a barn in Ontario which displays the slogan “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman.” For the most part though, the problems in their lives have nothing to do with the fact that they’re in a lesbian relationship. Can I just say it’s so refreshing to read a queer romance that doesn’t focus on one (or both) of the lovers’ coming out? The only thing I was left wishing for was more sex! There’s plenty of it mentioned, but it was a bit too 14A (or for you American readers, PG13) for my liking. What can I say, I just wanted a few more details.
Another thing I loved about this novel is that the secondary characters are just as interesting and well-fleshed out as Jude and Síle: I especially liked the redheaded Jael, Síle’s best friend who is a reluctant hasbian with a foul mouth and a dirty mind (her husband lovingly calls her a ‘prime bitch’ and her eight-year-old daughter says she wants to be one too). With Jude’s ex Rizla (yes, his nickname is that rolling paper brand) I think Donoghue does a great job portraying a contemporary Indigenous person without ever coming close to resorting to stereotypes. Rizla isn’t always a stellar guy, but he is funny, and likable. In fact, if it’s anything the diverse cast of family and friends are, it’s likable, despite their faults. Donoghue clearly has a lot of affection for her characters and always treats them compassionately, even if they’re cheating on their partners, not returning desperate phone calls, or starting unnecessary fist fights with strangers.
All this to say that Landing is pretty much the ideal lesbian love story. It’s the perfect combination of realism with a little smoothing out of ‘real’ life’s rougher edges. The characters speak like they’re in When Harry Met Sally: like real folks but a bit quicker on their toes, a bit funnier, a bit more eloquent. You never doubt that Síle and Jude are going to end up together, but the journey to the happy-ever-after is a lot of fun. Donoghue’s mostly no-nonsense prose is unexpectedly spotted with the occasional piece of poetry, like a piece of sweet dried fruit in a loaf of bread. Describing Jude’s first email to Síle, Donoghue writes “Sending Message: “Greetings.” Out Basket Empty. As if words were a flock of swallows tossed from a cage, chasing each other across the midwinter sky.”
If I had to choose one word to describe Landing, it would be authentic: especially in terms of emotion, character, and setting (I assume Donoghue has nailed Dublin the same way she did Southwestern Ontario, which is on dead straight on the head). Like its characters, Landing is quite simply lovable and irresistible.
Note: I was lucky enough to meet Emma Donoghue a few times last year when I was living in London, and if you can ever go see her speak, I definitely recommend it. First of all, her Irish accent is awesome; but more importantly she’s a really comfortable and talented public speaker. She’s so funny! One time she spoke at the university speaking about her research for her next book (on a lesbian frog-catcher living in Louisiana in the 1870s!!) and she was wearing gumboots with jelly beans on them. Also, she and her partner Chris (who’s a women’s studies and French prof at UWO) are adorable and my ex and I chatted with them at a party once; we later saw Emma’s very tall body stretched out on a couch–not sure if she was just tired or had had a few too many drinks, but either way she is one rad woman.