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Book Review: The Ghost and the Machine by Benny Lawrence

Sunday, June 9, 2019 - 07:00

What I knew about this book going in was that it concerned a young woman and a mechanical chess-playing automaton in the early 19th century. I expected intrigues and hoaxes and--given that I bought it though a lesbian book distributor--some amount of queer identity. What I didn’t expect was a dark psychological thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat right up to the end. This is not a fluffy, feel-good comfort read. It’s a gripping adventure and mystery that left me both satisfied and emotionally wrung out.

All the content advisories: psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, alcoholism, agoraphobia, dissociation, and in case it needs mentioning, this is not a romance novel. (Which sometimes needs mentioning as readers default to expecting lesbian books to be romance.) The sexual abuse is not presented graphically on the page but everything else is.

What grabbed me from the start was the excellence of the writing. Not only is Lawrence’s prose brutally exquisite, but she has the knack of portraying complex psychological experiences without falling back on modern medical terminology that would be out of place in a historic setting. The first-person protagonist, Kit, lets us know from the start that she will be an unreliable narrator. This leaves plenty of space for uncertainty as the plot twists and turns in ways reminiscent of a Sarah Waters novel. The historic details are both sharp and unobtrusive. I highly recommend this book for those who are up to the tension and the depictions of abuse.

* * *

Note: This next discussion isn't part of my book review proper. I vary in whether I look at other reviews before reading a book, so it wasn't until after I'd read the book and written my review that I ran across a couple reviews that interpreted the portrayal of sexual abuse by a woman against a woman to be homophobic. It is certainly true that in a historic context, one of the tropes associated with female same-sex desire is the "predatory lesbian"--the implication that same-sex desire is inherently controling and abusive. Here's my take on that within the context of this story.

This is a story that focuses entirely on female characters, and those characters encompass a number of different personalities and actions. All of the interpersonal interactions in this story--both bad and good--are between women. So the fact that the abuse is from one woman to another doesn't (to me) single out the same-sex aspect as saying something essentialist about same-sex interactions. The story does not set up predatory same-sex desire in contrast to redemptive and positive different-sex desire. (There is no heroic male rescuer waiting in the wings.The background references to heterosexual relationships mostly involve prostitution.) And the one central redemptive and hopeful relationship within the story (being vague to avoid spoilers) is also between two women. Within the context of the story, it is only potentially romantic and is definitely not erotic (and I'd find it implausible it it were immediately erotic, given the character's history) but it's there.

Secondly, the abusive character is pathologically abusive on all axes. The story would be equally horrific if the sexual element were not in play. (And I want to emphasize that the actual details of the sexual abuse are not described, unlike the other aspects.) Her personality is clearly shown to be about control and not about desire, as such. She is not depicted as having same-sex desire lead to abuse, but rather as being an inherently abusive person for whom sexual abuse is only one part of her toolbox.

This is a powerful book and an angry book, but I don't in any way interpret it as a homophobic book.

Major category: 
historical