Minor, but it's a particular type of minorness that is often quite lovely, even when it's not entirely successful. Winner of the LAMDA Award in 1990,...moreMinor, but it's a particular type of minorness that is often quite lovely, even when it's not entirely successful. Winner of the LAMDA Award in 1990, it begins with a young woman’s chance (or is it fated?) encounter with an old photograph album in an antique store, its brittle pages filled with photographs of four young women–identified as “The Gang” in the handwritten captions–from the early twentieth century. She is eventually told it is not for sale (it's a family heirloom just for display, in fact), but giving into an uncharacteristic impulse, she stuffs it in her bag when the shop owner’s back is turned, and flees from the store.
So begins a narrative of searching. That is, what ostensibly begins as the search to identify and learn about the life stories of these young women quickly snowballs into a number of different searches that intertwine the lives of “the gang” with the protagonist, Susan, including (but not at all limited to) Susan’s search to confirm that the young women in the antique photographs were not merely friends but consist of two pairs of lovers, Susan’s search for herself (she’s currently a graduate student but only because she has no idea what else to do with her life), and a search to clarify her tumultuous relationship with her own girlfriend, the scholarly and no-nonsense Catherine. To make matters even more complicated, Susan finds herself not only bewitched by these photographs and what they might possibly represent, but she becomes literally haunted by the spirits of several of the young women, causing the past to collide directly into the present.
For this particular scholar obsessed by forgotten queer histories, I can think of few premises more utterly enchanting than this one, and the automatic empathy I felt for Susan–both as an academic and as an individual navigating the messy details of life and romantic relationships–carried me through the very last page. As a critical reader, however, I had a much more conflicted experience: while Martinac has a breezy, easy-to-read prose style ideal for a page-turner, it is also (and I really hate to put it this way, but I see no way around it) exceedingly ungraceful, sometimes to the point of distraction. Susan’s incredibly visceral and emotionally charged first reaction to looking at the photographs is a representative example: “I flicked the pages over quickly, taking in the faces of four amazing women.” There’s... just no music there. I kept yearning for the moment for everything to kick up into another level, from the competent and compulsively readable to something indefinably but indisputably special. That moment, to my extreme disappointment, never quite materialized.
It’s a little bit like a glass of champagne that has been allowed to sit out for a while: certainly drinkable, perhaps even still delicious to the taste, but there’s just something essential missing without the sparkle and bubbles. Five stars for the story, two stars for the prose, three stars overall. (less)