I’m not entirely sure what I’ve been doing since the beginning of the month – a fair bit of work and some emergency plumbing, I fear, but this is the first book I’ve finished in September! I borrowed it from Ali in October last year after she reviewed it in July here, and I’m not sure if it was down to the fragmented way I read it but I don’t think I loved it as much as she did. However, it was very interesting, and the excellent introduction by Jackie Kay set it very well in its context.

I pulled this from slightly later in my TBR to read for All Virago / All August and the LibraryThing Virago Group’s August theme read of journeys (the central character has travelled from California to Reno to get a divorce and she also has a journey through her own sexuality). Of course, finishing in September, I’ve failed at both of those attempts, but never mind, eh?

Jane Rule – “Desert of the Heart”

(9 October 2021, loan from Ali)

Ann stood, awkward and defenseless. If Evelyn had been either indiscreet or distant, she would have known what to do. But decorum was a climate in which Evelyn lived. Within it she could move with a kind of candor Ann could neither imitate nor reject. And she had no attitude of her own. She did not know what to feel. (p. 136)

We meet Evelyn, fleeing an unsuccessful marriage where she feels she is the culprit in it going wrong, her husband lost in a miasma of depression. She comes to stay in Frances’ boarding house to accomplish getting a divorce, as that and gambling are the two mainstay industries of Reno. Ann, related in a complicated way to Frances, and Walter, Frances’ son, are the only other two regular residents, the rooms filled with a shifting population of women who stay for six weeks, have a court hearing and leave.

When Evelyn and Ann slowly fall for one another (or fall for one another and slowly admit it), we’re all convinced Evelyn will leave at the end of the six weeks, maybe even returning to heterosexuality. But she’s reminded of a wartime liaison and is gradually convinced this is natural. Also natural, however, is her reserve and reticence, which are difficult for Ann, used to the more obvious charms of her casino friends and her on-off lover, the statuesque Silver, to cope with.

There’s a lot of internal rumination, contrasted with the detailed and fascinating life inside the casino. Paragraphs like the one I quote seem simple then fold in on themselves (who is the “she” in the last two sentences, when you think about it?). There’s a bit of plot around Ann’s jealous ex, Bill, easily settled by the composed Evelyn, and a feeling of worry about what’s going to happen when these six weeks are up, but it’s mainly a character study of shifting feelings and emotions. Of course, what Jackie Kay picks out rather brilliantly is that this is a lesbian novel that came before the women’s movement of the late 60s and 70s, showing normal, rounded people who don’t end up dead or damaged – something that doesn’t actually often happen in LGBTQIA+ themed novels now, let alone then.

I also found interest in reading a woman’s view of the desert and casinos, after my reading of Larry McMurtry’s Vegas novels. It’s an absorbing read and the context of a novel which changed many women’s lives and led many of them to write to the author is also fascinating.