The Monkey's Mask by Dorothy Porter (1994) – Australia
"How can I tell
it's not just her fidgeting fingers
it's the slack of her shoulders
I'm too easy
she doesn't love me."
What makes The Monkey's Mask so powerful? Just listen to what Porter wrote in the Australian Humanities Review about the passion she poured into it:
That's right, the P-word. Only this is not a book of poetry, but rather a novel in verse (later adopted for stage and radio, as well as a film starring Kelly McGillis). Set aside your expectations, and you'll find this murder mystery is one long, satisfying adrenaline rush as Jill Fitzpatrick, a chain-smoking lesbian private investigator, hunts down the killer of a 19-year-old girl named Mickey. It appears that Mickey's sexual infatuations may have led to her death – but that does nothing to deter Jill from becoming sexually involved with a suspect in the case.
Porter, one of Australia 's best-known poets, has said, "There is nothing hotter than a terrific verse novel." Read The Monkey's Mask, a bold right uppercut of a book that the London Times named one of the best of the year, and you'll see she's right.
Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo (1996) – Caribbean
"I wonder at how many of us, feeling unsafe and unprotected, either end up running far away from everything we know and love, or staying and simply going mad. I have decided today that neither option is more or less noble than the other."
Cereus Blooms at Night, by out lesbian Shani Mootoo, is a startlingly good first novel, a book rightly compared to Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and praised by no less than Alice Munro as a "story of magical power."
The novel is narrated by Tyler, an effeminate, sometimes cross-dressing male nurse who lives in the town of Paradise on the fictional Caribbean island of Lantanacamara. When the apparently senile and supposedly murderous Mala Ramchandin is dropped off at the poorhouse where he works, nobody will touch her except Tyler, who knows a thing or two about being isolated and feared for being different.
Tyler slowly unravels the mysterious, multigenerational tragedy (including a clandestine lesbian affair) that destroyed Mala and her family. Their story is part of Mootoo's wider exploration of the need to accept differences and the heartbreaking repercussions when we do not.
Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald (1996) – Canada
"I've never heard anyone talk like her or play like her but then, when I hear her play, I feel as though I'm hearing music for the first time."
Selected for Oprah's Book Club, Fall on Your Knees is an epic novel about secrets – the kind that drive you to drinking, prostitution, violence and the edge of a cliff. And, when you're lucky, to a new life somewhere else.
Four sisters grow up in the early 1900s on Cape Breton Island, just off the coast of Nova Scotia. They live in a small mining town, where they learn traditional lessons about loving the lord and fearing their father. As the town struggles through World War I, the influenza epidemic, the Great Depression and more, the sisters struggle (often with great humor) through sometimes unfathomable pain and abuse in their secluded home.
When one sister escapes to New York City, she enjoys the novel's most passionate romantic relationship. Though it takes up just 60 of the novel's 500 pages, her interracial lesbian love affair plays a central role in the plot, as two talented, stubborn women show what can happen when people have the courage to reveal their secrets.
In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand (1996) – Caribbean and Canada
"I abandon everything for Verlia. I sink in Verlia and let she flesh swallow me up. I devour she. She open me up like any morning."
A New York Times Notable Book, In Another Place, Not Here is a fevered dream of a novel that will enthrall those drawn to Brand's poetic language, which has earned the out lesbian writer comparisons to Michael Ondaatje and Toni Morrison.
The book is broken into narrative halves so Elizete and Verlia, two starkly different women, can tell their separate but intertwined stories. Elizete is an impoverished woman who has spent her life working the cane fields on an unnamed Caribbean island, always dreaming of escaping to a better life. Elizete has a brief, life-changing affair with Verlia, an educated woman who has abandoned her life as a left-wing activist in Toronto, Canada, to return to her Caribbean birthplace, where she hopes to help organize a revolution.
Often breathtakingly beautiful and filled with haunting images, Brand's novel will be most rewarding for those who enjoy unraveling deeply challenging works.