BC-born and Calgary-based Lois Cloarec Hart’s novel Walking the Labyrinth is the first romance I’ve ever read. As someone who usually reads so-called literary fiction (not that I don’t have more than a healthy amount of criticism of the standards by which a piece of writing is considered “literary” and or not), I was a bit wary of delving into this genre. I was trying to keep my expectations reasonable. I didn’t want to approach the book with the same kind of lens I usually do. I was trying to be a different kind of reader, for a little while, anyway. Despite some critiques I’m going to make later in the review, I have to say this novel made me like it despite myself. It has emotional impact, there’s no question about that.
What did I like about it? First of all, the protagonist is a butch woman named Lee in her sixties who lives in Calgary. I’m probably never going to read another book featuring a character like her. Who writes lesbian romance novels about women in their sixties? Lois Cloarec Hart, apparently. Also, the book begins a year after Lee has lost her wife to cancer. Despite the fact that it’s unabashedly a romance, this novel is also very occupied with grief and mourning. I particularly appreciated the complex view it took on the idea of soul mates, and the idea that allowing someone else into Lee’s life didn’t involve forgetting or disrespecting the woman who passed away who she thought was the only love of her life.
On that note, the novel also deals a lot with spirituality—the kind of spirituality that for me, having grown up on a hippie west coast island, didn’t seem that out there, but for others might be what Lee herself calls “hooey” (I love that Hart used this word because it’s totally something my Grandma would have said). So if you’re the kind of person who calls things like meditating and reincarnation and soul journeys “hippie-dippy shit,” I’m going to echo Danika’s review on the lesbrary and say this is not the book for you. But I was pretty interested in this part of the novel, even if I thought some of it was silly and far-fetched.
The romance is pretty cute and awesome and organic. Even the standard last-minute obstacle that keeps the couple apart for just a while longer until they finally come to their senses and get together was pretty clever and realistic, as far as that clichéd trope goes. The two women get to know each other and slowly develop feelings for each other in rural Saskatchewan, another thing that I thought was pretty unique about Walking the Labyrinth. I don’t know when I’m going to read another queer romance set in rural Saskatchewan. I thought Hart did a pretty good job of depicting rural and small-town folks too, something that so-called literary writers from the city often fuck up royally, making people from the country sound no different from urban folks or imaginatively making up some exoticized idea of what they’re like that bears no resemblance to the group of people they’re actually representing.
Okay, what are those critiques I promised you? I mean, Hart’s prose is nothing to write home about. The dialogue in particular is pretty scripted and artificial; it doesn’t sound much like how people actually talk. Frankly, I was expecting that, though, so it didn’t really bother me too much. What I wasn’t expecting were a few problems with race, one of which Danika also mentioned in her review: one of Lee’s friends mentions that “Middle Eastern men can be pretty controlling with the women in their family” when they are discussing the background of an alleged abusive husband of a client at Lee’s private security company. I found it pretty strange that Lee doesn’t complicate this assumption that Middle Eastern men are somehow more controlling than men from other cultures. Surely as someone who’s dealt with a variety of abusive men at her job would know that patriarchy is pretty wide-spread and that, unfortunately, men from all sorts of different backgrounds, including white men, can be controlling and violent.
In addition to this unchecked casual racism, a sub-plot of the novel about Lee’s love interest’s philanthropy work in Guinea made me feel a bit….iffy. What worried me was that Hart’s portrayal of a Guinean woman named Janjay, who works with Gaëlle, the love interest, was obviously trying really hard not to be racist. Janjay is a woman who’s seen her children kidnapped and taken as child soldiers and had her hand cut off after being caught in the middle of war. She’s somehow, however, this wise saint who shows nothing of her emotionally traumatic past. This made me uncomfortable, because it reminded me of those portrayals of queer people that are so worried about being homophobic or showing queer people in a negative light that they make these perfect little positive depictions of queer people that ultimately strip them of their humanity. I think a more complex depiction that resisted the urge to exoticize and make Janjay into a saint would have been more honest and ironically, given what I’m sure Hart’s intentions are, anti-racist. Queer people, black people—they shouldn’t have to be saints to be acknowledged; they shouldn’t have to be ten times better than white and/or straight people to be accepted. They’re human beings and fiction should depict them as such, flaws and all—especially, flaws and complexities that might be particular to their backgrounds.
All that said, I’m willing to give Hart the benefit of the doubt given my assumptions about her intentions as regards her portrayals of black women (Janjay’s daughter is also a character). I think I might even give romance another try since I was so pleasantly surprised by this one. Any suggestions (Canadian, please)??