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Black Wine, Candas Jane Dorsey

June 9, 2011

Black Wine, Candas Jane Dorsey (1997)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

What can I say about this book, other than it won this year’s Tiptree Award and that it has a very beautiful cover? The words are very beautiful too, in many parts. Certainly the sentiment is beautiful. But as a novel, well, maybe it errs just a little too much on the side of art and not enough on the side of understandability.

Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey, follows the lives of three women in three very different societies. It is clear from the start they have some connection and are therefore probably in different parts of the same world. Slowly but surely, we see how their lives are intertwined, and they unravel the secrets of their past.

The world that Dorsey has created is very interesting, being just on the cusp of becoming technological. On the one hand there are castles and taverns that make the place seem almost mediaeval. On the other there are airships which bespeak a certain level of engineering sophistication. Best of all, as the book proceeds, Dorsey uses increased evidence of technology as a signal that time is passing and that the societies she describes are evolving. Sometimes she plays tricks, such as when a character refers to a “calculator” which later turns out to be an abacus. Some readers have found it all very perturbing (in both senses of the word), and certainly there is no attempt to provide a rational description of the technological advance, but I found it all rather clever.

Besides, the technology is not what the book is about. It is about society, and how we treat each other, and it is about love and abandonment. The book describes a range of different societies from anarcho-communism to feudalism, the important point being that some are based on love and some on hate. The message isn’t exactly pounded in, merely left for the reader to draw conclusions from. In the same way, some of the characters enter into unorthodox sexual relationships – lesbianism, sadism and a threesome. Once again, this is portrayed as perfectly normal. Look at this, the book says, isn’t it just so ordinary? But, once again, doesn’t some of it seem filled with love and some of it with hate? I must add that the lesbian sex scenes are steaming hot, certainly the best I’ve ever read.

I think what Dorsey wants us to take away from the book is this. She has created a world in which a range of behaviours exist, some social, some personal. The world itself does not judge. No one is complaining about Commies or perverts. But, stripped of the labels that our world imposes on them, nevertheless some of them appear good and others appear bad. So maybe we should stop labelling things and think about the basic behaviour instead.

Meanwhile, back with love and abandonment. One character was abandoned by her mother when very young and resents it. But twice she walks out on lovers. Another character finds herself needing to abandon her child for its own safety. This is the book at its most post-modern. Nothing lasts, it says. Sometimes you just have to pack up and go. Of course you do, and of course sometimes the decision turns out to have been wrong. Happy endings are for fairy tales. Endings, in fact, are for fairy tales.

This isn’t an easy book to read. For example, some of the characters don’t acquire names until very late on in the story. And it is very arty, very literature. But it is still beautiful and has still been crafted with love and care. I am forced to conclude that its irritations are the result of deliberate stylistic choices, not lack of skill on the part of the writer. If I may be forgiven for returning once more to the obvious metaphor, it is like the rarest of wines, where you have to work hard to understand it before you can see how good it is.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

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