Bite-size Books: Passing Strange

Book cover: Passing Strange - Ellen Klages (two people dancing in a ballroom at night)San Francisco, 1939. Treasure Island glows in the Bay, a beacon for Man’s perseverance and ingenuity. The vibrant City itself is full of immigrants and free spirits, shielded from the shadows of war. Anything can happen in San Francisco: forbidden love, illegal shifts in gender, and maybe – when you really need it – some actual magic.

I’ve always loved the cover art for Passing Strange. It has the feel of a period romance, all big moon and dreamy elegance; it’s quite out of place on my scifi and fantasy shelf. This is perhaps apt for a novella about making your own way in spite of society, about not quite belonging and so creating your own place.

Told as an extended flashback, Passing Strange flirts at the edges of the genre. In the present day, an elderly Chinese lady (Helen) sells a precious, carefully-guarded relic to a predatory antiquarian bookseller; the unusual final work of an artist famous for painting the lurid covers of pulp comics.

In the past, Helen is part of San Francisco’s humming lesbian scene, a member of the tight-knit Circle who share pizza, wine and mutual support in the face of a city where anything goes unless the police find out. Because this is not the free-spirited, free-living San Francisco of later times: in 1939, even cross-dressing was illegal – wearing fewer than 3 articles of feminine clothing could see you arrested under the vice laws. Loving outside the narrow bounds of accepted heterosexuality was right out.

Passing Strange focuses on the story of Haskel, the pulp artist, and her romance with a newcomer to town. It works as an excellent historical novella, capturing the sense of pre-war San Francisco (Pearl Harbor wasn’t bombed until 1941) with its glimpses of the World Fair on Treasure Island and its loving depiction of the city’s LGBTQIA community.

Klages shows the many ways in which her characters are marginalised and persecuted. Helen struggles to find work, as no American wants to employ a Chinese lawyer; she earns a crust dancing at a local club that fetishises Chinese culture for the titillation of Midwestern tourists and well-heeled white locals. Haskel is bisexual and at times gender ambiguous; and there’s little doubt her work would be frowned upon more if it were known to be by a woman. Emily was thrown out of college for being found in her room-mate’s bed; an early scene has her colleague and current flatmate being arrested for dressing as a man.

And yet this is a hopeful romance in spite of the context. Klages ensures we understand the risks her characters are taking, the fragility of their carefully-constructed lives, but the focus is on opening up to a new lover and pursuing joy. I’m not big on romance (least of all insta-love, and this relationship moves awfully fast), but I was swept off my feet by this one – and by the open-armed support and platonic love within the Circle.

I hesitate to call this a fantasy novella: magical realism might be a closer fit, as the magical element is peripheral at best and shoe-horned in like a deus ex machina at worst. But perhaps any intrusion of magic onto the real world should feel out of tune, and the ending certainly satisfied my sentimental heart like a bittersweet ending to a Sunday matinee.