‘The Gloaming’ is the lesbian anti-fairytale we need to read

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Filled with mermaids and magical realism, set on a secluded island that eventually turns everyone who lives there to stone, The Gloaming has all the hallmarks of a modern fairytale. And yet what makes this book special is that it’s anything but. The second novel from Polari Prize winner Kirsty Logan, The Gloaming is a subtly subversive take on loss and love between women.

At the beginning of the story we meet the Ross family, who live a life as charmed as they are charming. Peter and Signe, a boxer and a ballerina by trade, moved to the island to open a guest house in the hope that it will build a stable future for their children. Islay, the eldest, has inherited her mother’s grace and her father’s glorious red hair. Mara, the middle-child, has inherited her father’s stocky build and is at points eclipsed by her sister’s beauty. Barra, the youngest, is a golden child loved by all. When grief finds a home in the Ross household, Mara must find a way to build her adult self amidst the wreckage of loss.

If anything, The Gloaming is a coming-of-age story. And although grief is a central theme of the novel, there is a great deal of humor and joy in Mara’s journey to maturity. Not that many of us will have missed it, but Mara’s experience captures perfectly the agonising awkwardness of life as a teenage girl: the difficulties of growing accustomed to your body, the growing pains that are part of self-acceptance, and the first inkling of understanding that your life isn’t going to turn out quite the way all of the stories said that it would.

Mara’s experience captures perfectly the agonizing awkwardness of life as a teenage girl: the difficulties of growing accustomed to your body, the growing pains that are part of self-acceptance, and the first inkling of understanding that your life isn’t going to turn out quite the way all of the stories said that it would.

Logan’s writing about the female experience has a welcome honesty. Indeed, it is the kaleidoscope of little truths about the world that make the island’s hold on its inhabitants, the delicate hints of dark magic at play, believable – truths like the seismic shift that takes place inside when you first find an opportunity to legitimately use an adult’s given name and see yourself on an equal footing.

The greatest delight in Mara’s life, and the novel as a whole, comes through her relationship with Pearl. From their first fortuitous meeting on a library bus, it’s obvious that the two women share something special. Yet, as their love story unfolds, it becomes clear that The Gloaming is something of an anti-romance novel. The relationship between Mara and Pearl defies the logic of traditional fairy tales, running counter to all the old stories where women’s sadness is the price of love and a happily-ever-after ending conveniently keeps the reader from witnessing the everyday squabbles over things like who’s going to take out the bins. Their love is at once exquisite and ordinary.

“This story. It was everything she’d thought she wanted. She’d wanted to be the selkie, not the fisherman – and yet here she was with her sea-love. Still, perhaps it didn’t matter. There didn’t have to be a fisherman at all; two selkies could love one another just fine.”

Even within a lot of modern-day LGBT fiction, there remains a pattern of writers following the arc of classical heterosexual love in their characters’ stories by treating a relationship as the solution to every problem. Logan’s approach to love is as refreshing as the cool breeze that sweeps over the island. Through the character of Pearl, the reader is granted a glimpse into the author’s own politics. Pearl more than lives up to her name through the wisdom she shares about the patriarchal values that shape what we have been sold as romance. She is a brown mermaid with a penchant for feminist literary criticism – it’s easy to see what Mara loves about her.

There is also something quite devastating about seeing Pearl through the eyes of Islay, Mara’s stunning older sister. Islay is blind to everything Mara values about her girlfriend, repeatedly dismissing her as “chubby” and lamenting her presence in the Ross home. Where Mara sees beauty and glamour, Islay sees something eccentric and distasteful. Without ever directly referring to it, Logan shows the covert workings of homophobia in a family.

The ache of loss and the sharp subtlety of trauma are present throughout the story, sometimes visible and other times less so – much like in life.

What’s particularly striking about The Gloaming is how effectively the book explores grief through the lens of magical realism. The ache of loss and the sharp subtlety of trauma are present throughout the story, sometimes visible and other times less so – much like in life. Although the story doesn’t always follow a clear trajectory, this structuring fits with the plot being grounded in reality rather than myth. It’s a book full of surprises, including (minor spoiler warning) the unique achievement of making period sex hot. The true wonder of The Gloaming is how Logan finds magic in the mundane.

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