Around the World in Lesbian Fiction


You know you've heard the complaint. You've probably even voiced it yourself: "I'd like to read more lesbian novels, but there's nothing good out there." The only problem? It's simply not true.

The 12 novels listed here (in order of publication) — all set outside the U.S. and published in the past couple of decades — include romances, tragedies, mysteries and coming-of-age stories. Whatever narrative style or type of story appeals to you, you'll find it here, in well-written books that take you around the world, from Edinburgh and Helsinki to Toronto, New Delhi and Sydney.

To pare down the list, a few admittedly arbitrary criteria were applied. The novels had to feature a lesbian main character, with allowances made for how difficult it is to define both "lesbian" and "main character." No attempt was made to select the authors' most recent or most famous books, and Sarah Waters' and Jeanette Winterson's many deserving novels were left off the list to make room for lesser-known works.

Regardless of the criteria, the list below remains woefully incomplete, but then that's the point: There really is a lot of good lesbian literature out there, just waiting for you to discover it.

Fair Play by Tove Jansson (1989) — Finland

"Just one thing … It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent — lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It's as simple as that."

Fair Play is a slender and deceptively simple book about two older women in Helsinki whose shared daily life reveals a lifetime's worth of wisdom about love and work.

The novel is composed of a series of connected vignettes featuring Mari, a writer and illustrator, and Jonna, a filmmaker and artist. It must be said that very little happens in the book: The first chapter is about rearranging pictures, the next about watching movies. But if you slow down — and somehow in reading this novel, you can't help but slow down to appreciate every carefully chosen word — you'll uncover an elegant story about how life's smallest moments reveal underlying truths about art and relationships.

Jansson is an internationally famous writer and illustrator of children's books who wrote Fair Play (one of her 11 books for adults) in her mid-70s, surely basing it in part on her long-term partnership with a female graphic artist. In the novel, Jonna and Mari bicker and debate and — often through small touches and glances — reveal their love for one another while providing insight into the artist's life, the compromises of relationships and the space we all need, in our work and our personal lives.

At once playful and thought-provoking, Fair Play is a quiet but masterful novel that deserves to be read again and again.

The Four Winds by Gerd Brantenberg (1989) — Norway, Scotland

"Inger hunched over the picture and studied it, and knew at once that this girl — the unknown Scottish girl there in the tiny picture — would be her new catastrophe."

Perhaps because it is a translated work sold by a small publisher, The Four Winds is (at least in the United States) not nearly as well known as it deserves to be. Written by one of Norway's leading feminist authors, the novel is a deeply funny, insightful and semiautobiographical story about coming of age (and coming out) in 1960s Norway.

While serving as an au pair in Edinburgh for a year and, later, studying at the University of Oslo, Inger Holm suffers a series of what she calls "catastrophes": "There was always," she notes, "some girl who came along and made her legs unreliable." Inger's droll observations and wordplay lightens an agonizing series of personal events that take place in the midst of the social upheaval and gay liberation movement of the 1960s.

Brantenberg's story is best in its bittersweet moments, as when Inger watches Ingmar Bergman's The Silence, and for the first time sees one woman declare her love for another. Inger's straight friend (another catastrophe) is completely unmoved by the film. But Inger feels, and reminds us of, the personal and cultural significance of the moment: "Finally, the truth had been told — in a completely public place — without the woman who said it immediately going and hanging herself. Oh, Good God, what a long time it had taken!"

Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama (1991) — China

"She reached over and put her arms around Lin, feeling something she had never known before, the smallest hint of fear, gradually giving way to desire."

Set in early 20th-century China, Women of the Silk focuses not just on the historic hardships facing women in that country — although that is part of the story — but on the women's enduring strength, friendship and courage.

The book follows Pei, a young woman born in rural China in 1919, who is sent by her domineering father to work at a silk factory. Initially frightened by life in the city, where she lives in a home for female silk workers, Pei soon forms a familial bond with her fellow workers and with the nurturing woman who runs the home. Pei 's relationship with one worker named Lin is particularly close, although the text (including the quote above) suggests but never explicitly states that they are lovers.

Tsukiyama, winner of an Academy of American Poets Award, pulls off something extraordinary in Women of the Silk, bringing a time and place alive without being heavy-handed with her feminist objectives — and while creating an ensemble of distinct, appealing characters.

Pei, who is also the subject of a second novel by Tsukiyama, will stay with you long after you finish reading, as will her parents, Lin and several of the other women whose lives revolve around the silk factory.

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