Although Emma Donoghue admits that her novel Hood didn’t sell well on first publication, possibly because it’s “about lesbians and death, two turn-offs for the average reader,” I couldn’t help but love this book (although I suppose I am far from the average reader). When I explained to a friend that I was reading a novel about an Irish woman in the 90s grieving her partner in a time and cultural place where she couldn’t even acknowledge her widowhood, I suddenly realized how depressing that description sounded. But this novel is not what you might expect from such a description; it’s neither a sour, miserable journey of bereavement nor a stiff polemic on rights for queer people using a partner’s death as a way into this argument. Hood, I think, does ultimately maintain an argument for queer rights, but it’s not through any politicizing; rather, it’s from the very strategy that only seems remarkable or odd to straight reviewers: she presents an utterly flawed queer character in all her glorious and everyday humanity. This is only one of the book’s many powers.
Pen (short for Penelope) is the widow, and she’s one of the most fascinating characters you’ll ever meet in literature. This, despite–or because of–the fact that she’s quite ordinary; she’s a bit of a loner, she’s a relatively unhappy teacher at the Catholic school she attended when she was young, she’s afraid to come out of the closet, she likes to be in control, she leans towards irony and sarcasm when expressing her emotions, and she’s practical, perhaps to a fault. Pen feels unfailingly real. She’s not extraordinary, but she’s probably like someone you know—except you get to see all that is really remarkable underneath her ordinary exterior. As she does especially well in Landing, Donoghue quite stunningly hovers over mundanity to occasionally give us a glimpse of shimmering insight into what it is to be a (particular kind of) human.
Pen is (or, was) the lover of a charismatic woman named Cara, who dies in a car crash at the beginning of the novel. When I say lover, I mean to emphasize that she was the lover and Cara the beloved. As Pen says when reflecting on how Cara treated her, “If I ever get around to loving anyone else, … it would have to be someone who would neither muffle my thunder nor steal it.” Like Penelope in The Odyssey, Pen is always waiting for her lover to come back—literally and figuratively. Unfailingly loyal and devoted perhaps a little blindly to this flighty yet compelling woman, Pen has more to deal with than even what you might guess when Cara suddenly dies. Although she and Cara have been living with Cara’s father, he is unaware that they are a couple. Although Pen knew that Cara had a history of infidelity and was having an affair, she has to find out who this woman is and confront her at an alternative celebration of life held by Cara’s friends, a group of communal-living radical women. Although she’s been with Cara for thirteen years, Pen has never come out to her own mother. Although she hasn’t been to Ireland since she left for America in her teens, Cara’s sister Kate comes home for the funeral and we learn that is was Kate, not Cara, who was in fact Pen’s first love.
It seems a bit weird to be reviewing this book on this blog, because it’s very strongly rooted in Irish cultural traditions, Catholicism, and the suffocating atmosphere of pre-boom Dublin (a term I had to look up, I admit). You’ll have to read the book to know what I mean, and I’m not going to attempt to address cultural and religious issues I know hardly anything about. But what I can tell you is: I’m glad Donoghue calls Canada her home now and that I feel like I can include a review of this book here, because it’s one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read. It explores all the delicious and terrible complexities of relationships with astonishing clarity and simplicity and wisdom. When it was first published, it was only the second novel Donoghue had ever written.
How is it beautiful? Consider, for example, this description of Pen’s loss of Cara’s body and their sexual bond:
It was as if I had spent thirteen years specializing in a certain language, only to discover all its speakers had scattered and renounced their native tongue. No, worse than that, because at least dead languages could be studied. This was as if I had spent my life learning to play a certain unique instrument, only to see some crazed vandal smash it to pieces.
Consider this sweet, simple story of intimacy and the small punch to the gut the last part of the final sentence is:
I was briefly troubled by a memory of a picnic bath I’d shared with Cara a summer or two ago; a peach had fallen in and bobbed along beside us, cooking slowly, until I’d wiped it on the towel and bit in, spilling the hot juice, and Cara had leaned over to lick the drops from my throat. Well, never mind. There would be peaches next summer. They would still taste like peaches, or almost the same.
Consider this understated and heartbreaking expression of loss and the body’s irrepressible persistence in living:
So this was my first bleeding with Cara not in the world. I waited to register the thought, trying the pain on for size. This blood was the sound of a body clock ticking in my ear, not telling me the shortness of life, like the magazines say it does for childless women, but tolling its length. Life in this unnatural century being generally longer than any one passion or journey, so that even when the story for which you seem to have been born is told, the body clicks on, telling you that you’re alive, you’re alone, you’re alive, you’re alone, and you cannot have one without the other. The choice of dead and together not being available to you, because if you ran after the one you love into death, like a squalling child, she might easily be angry and say, you’re always following me, give me space to miss you in, back off a bit, all right? If I stayed here, not in this bath but in this rapidly cooling life, if I stayed here and lived out however many years were allotted to me, then surely by the time I got to heaven Cara would be impatient to sweep me off my feet?
As I usually do when I don’t know quite how to express how much I loved a book, I’ll just leave that last quotation to speak for itself.