With its homosexual relationships and dominant slavery theme, this powerful well-written novel seems a challenging read for those of us who are in theWith its homosexual relationships and dominant slavery theme, this powerful well-written novel seems a challenging read for those of us who are in the mainstream. Yet George Orwell’s *1984* hardly slots into the norm and we have no trouble reading about Winston Smith’s brutal torments at the hands of the virtual slave-state known as Big Brother. Most Goodreads members who have read *Hidden Boundaries* classify the novel as M/M (male on male) Romance, but that trivializes a work that may best be described as homosexual literature. The question remains as to whether we really need to make a literary sub-category based on sexual orientation.
The novel is set in an alternate universe, which technically makes the book science fiction, but it reads like SF only in the Orwellian sense. The author would have been wiser to choose, like Orwell, a near-future milieu. As it stands, the Earth-like setting plays such a minor role in the novel that it is essentially irrelevant. What matters is that one despised nation among all the others allows slavery.
Some people become slaves in much the same way as debtors once landed in prison in Victorian England. Fail to pay and you forfeit your freedom. Others are sold into slavery by those who have the right to make that decision, much like the African chiefs who once sold unpopular or unwanted tribe members to passing Arab slavers. Illegal and controversial raids on neighbouring countries garner a few more. The novel explores the fate of Cor, one such captured slave. His name is actually much longer, but slaves may not have impressive sounding identifiers.
As someone entitled to a normal life in his own land, Cor bitterly resents his status as a slave. He resists. The highly ritualized system requires that, like Winston Smith in *1984*, he be made more compliant. A large portion of the novel deals with Cor’s prolonged and painful indoctrination process, which does resemble the horrors of *1984*. Cor has no way to escape, so in some way, he must come to terms with his situation. How he does this is quite startling, yet makes perfect sense within the logic of his hopeless position. His owner is not especially keen on slavery, but an hereditary estate and his role as an elected official require him to take part in the unsavoury system. The complex relationship between Cor and his master makes up the other major aspect of the novel.
McClellan’s approach to the searing moral issues implicit in slavery is both insightful and horrific. Cor’s absolute vulnerability to exploitation of every kind, including the sexual, is appalling and illustrated with some brutal emotionally wrenching scenes. Yet this is not a novel of sadomasochism, nor is it homosexual erotica. We are looking at issues faced today by anyone victimized by human trafficking. Here lies some of the novel’s relevance as a literary work. It manages to illuminate the old historical evils of plantation slavery in the American South (and elsewhere in the New World) and the new evils of human trafficking in the present day. At the same time, it explores the kinds of intricate caring relationships that can emerge even under such inauspicious circumstances.
If you relish a thought-provoking read that will open your eyes to aspects of life you may not be familiar with, *Hidden Boundaries* is highly recommended....more
From a masculine standpoint, *Sylvia’s Lovers* is not a promising title for a novel. It sounds like a Harlequin romance when, in fact, it is a marvellFrom a masculine standpoint, *Sylvia’s Lovers* is not a promising title for a novel. It sounds like a Harlequin romance when, in fact, it is a marvellous evocation of life in a rugged Yorkshire whaling town in the late 1700s. The English are at war with the French (again) and the vividly depicted harbour town bustles with whaling activity while the King’s press gangs roam the narrow streets looking for able-bodied sailors they can strong-arm into a navy desperate for new recruits. As they make their daily rounds, the locals must walk furtively, resentfully watchful for the hated gangs. Emotions run high. There are outbreaks of violence.
The lovers of the novel’s title are Philip Hepburn, an intelligent stooping local shop clerk, and Charlie Kinraid, a fine figure of a man who is a daring harpooner on a whaling ship. Sylvia is a pretty farm girl with an aversion to all book learning that does not involve the “Greenland seas” where the romantic Kinraid plies his perilous icy trade. The classic love triangle sets up when Philip loves Sylvia but *she* falls hard for Charlie Kinraid after he is wounded while bravely defending his shipmates from a press gang. (The name Kinraid is suggestive. Philip is a cousin of Sylvia’s and Kinraid is trespassing on a relationship blessed by Sylvia’s parents.) On the side, we have quiet self-effacing Hester Rose, who loves Philip with the constancy and devotion that men dream of but seldom find.
When it comes to competing for Sylvia’s affections, bookish sombre Philip does not stand a dog’s chance against the manly Charlie Kinraid. And here is where the author sets out her theme. Every major character in the book, barring quick-witted Charlie, is relentlessly obtuse and self-defeating. Philip could have Hester’s abiding love, but barely notices the faithful young woman. Charlie is a known womanizer, but Sylvia will hear nothing said against him. Sylvia is a deliberate dunce, too tightly bound to her parents, and treats Philip with callous disregard, but the learned and sensitive Philip overlooks all. Instead of turning away, he masochistically continues to woo silly Sylvia in spite of her cruel slights and rebuffs. Hester refuses to declare her ardent love for Philip. Sylvia’s father foolishly leads a mob against an active press gang going about the King’s business. Sylvia’s mother cannot cope with her grief. When faced with disgrace, Philip runs off like a child who has wet himself rather than deal with the situation like a man. Naturally, his craven act wins him nothing but catastrophe.
Gaskell is revealing just how weak, foolish, and self-defeating most people are. We turn away from what we could have, to chase things that can never be. We delude ourselves, ignore reality, and engage in the worst kinds of wishful thinking. We run away when we should make a stand. We make trouble when we should make peace. We hurt one another when, with just a little more intelligence, we could improve one another’s lives immensely. Gaskell’s theme is humanity’s most egregious and enduring flaw.
Charlie Kinraid is Gaskell’s foil. Charlie is always effective. He is a first rate harpooner who always hits his mark. Even when captured by the press gangs he manages to pass a message for Sylvia to Philip (although Philip then betrays him). Once pressed into the navy, the capable and courageous Charlie buckles down and quickly rises to the rank of Captain. When he learns that Sylvia has married treacherous Philip in his forced absence, he simply finds himself another suitable woman (there are plenty of fish in the sea) and happily marries. Romantics, of course, will say that Charlie never really loved Sylvia, but a womanizer only comes back for his lady after such a long time if he truly cares for her. Naturally, this obvious fact is lost on muddle-headed Sylvia.
Things end badly for all the obtuse self-defeaters while Charlie Kinraid, as is only fair and reasonable, comes through with flying colours. Gaskell points the way to happier lives. Have courage. Recognize, and responsibly look after, your real interests. Use your head.
*Sylvia’s Lovers* is a rich and rewarding historical novel that does not romanticize foolish behaviour. ...more