REVIEW: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Reprint edition: April 9, 2017); Broadway Books; 306 pages.
I’ve known of Jennifer Finney Boylan as an activist and scholar from my days as a professor teaching queer theory. What somehow eluded me all those years was that she also writes fiction. I discovered this quite by accident when I happened upon mention of her novel Long Black Veil (yep, the title is a nod to Johnny Cash) and picked it up, mostly because I knew who she is and I was really curious.
I’m glad dumb luck led me there, because I stumbled on a book I wound up really loving.
Long Black Veil is a sort of mystery, though It’s not a whodunnit by any means. It’s about a group of young folks who get lost in a creepy old jail and one of them winds up gone and is later found dead. There’s suspense for a while, until you find out who was responsible for her death and why, but that isn’t really the point. It’s about the fallout, the way all the other characters deal with loss, guilt, survival and moving on.
This horrible moment in the past is juxtaposed against the narrative of a trans character who, rather than come out to her friends as trans, winds up disappearing herself in a flaming car wreck so she can establish her transition and emerge a new person, with a new name and a new life.
These two enormous events, both in some measure traumatizing, wind up informing each other—at least for this reader. Judith, who is trans, winds up in a similar situation to those who are guilty of bringing about her friend’s death—she must “kill” her former boy self, then cover up her tracks and keep the secret forever, even from those she loves most (like her husband and son). In doing so, she loses connections to her former friends, and must grieve in secret, telling neither her former friends nor her new family. She winds up alone and in pain, and must struggle with the fear of losing (or having lost) those she loves if ever her true, whole self is discovered.
I pounced on this book not only because Boylan wrote it, but because the description I’d read suggested it is queer magic realism—a category I had, up until recently, thought I may have invented. It just seems so right to me, since magic realism is about the natural and the fantastic juxtaposed, the realness of something that we believe cannot be real; and since magic realism’s initial incarnation was as a form of protest against repressive political systems. But please, reader, please gliss past my hubris here, because it turns out queer magic realism is a thing already.
The novel has elements of this—it is a beautifully strange landscape of events, ripped up by the frequent intrusion of the everyday. Sometimes there are ghosts and visions, and sometimes they are just mirrors—characters are haunted by the ghosts of their pasts, but also by visions of themselves. Dead folks are not the only ghosts, friends, and they’re often not the ghosts most haunting us.
Perhaps I’m not making it sound so, but the writing is quite deft, very smart, and entirely believable, no matter how strange it gets. At its heart, it’s about loss and rejection—both of friends and family, but also of one’s history, one’s identity, one’s self. It’s about how you remake your life in the face of gut-ripping change. It’s about how you grow into newness, and what happens to the old parts of you when you do grow into something new.