Secret lesbians battle monstrous bigotry in 19th-century Florida in this rambunctious historical melodrama.
Peters’ (One Little World, 2016, etc.) sixth Mary Fisher novel finds the protagonist and her lover, Abigail Greene, taking a breather from trauma in the seaside town of Loggerhead, Florida. Abigail recently lost her hand in an alligator mauling, and Mary has weathered sadistic psychiatric treatments for homosexuality. It’s 1896, so they’re definitely not open about their relationship, but the tall, raw-boned, close-cropped Mary easily passes as the petite, green-eyed Abigail’s husband. They settle in for a happy sojourn, basking in the warm accommodations and marvelous indoor plumbing at the local boardinghouse and dining on oysters; there’s even an exciting diversion when they chase down a jewel thief. But deeper shadows emerge in Loggerhead after Mary and Abigail intervene to stop a mob from lynching a falsely accused African-American man. They soon confront a conspiracy that involves bank robbery, child molestation, and an underground movement to install a fascist neo-Confederate regime in the statehouse. As the plot turns dark and gory, Mary unleashes her meditative sixth sense and her mighty left hand, which has a mind of its own that’s constantly yearning for violence. Peters steeps this yarn in period detail that’s not spoiled too much by her characters’ anachronistic tendency to cuss like cable-TV thugs. (Mary’s thick Scottish dialect, though, is a bit harder to take.) The story sometimes feels clichéd; bad and good guys are forever turning and re-turning the tables on one another after interludes of trash talk. However, the narrative moves along briskly, and the scenes are well-staged when jawing turns to fighting. Mary makes for an intriguing heroine: naïve, awkward, mannish, yet entranced by the more assertive Abigail. Despite lyrical lesbian love scenes, though, Mary’s greatest passion is for mayhem: “Something came over me as the life bled out of him, and like some sort of madwoman I began to shriek and scream out in some twisted ejaculation of joy as I rode atop his flailing body.” Readers will find themselves rooting for this Valkyrie as she mounts up for battle.
A lurid, improbable, but rousing saga of a love that dared not yet speak its name.