The Wives of Bath

The Wives of Bath - Susan   Swan I really thought this was something quite special, and quite unexpected. My hopes were limited when I saw that it was "one of the most powerful depictions of adolescent female sexuality..." But that's not what's here. This is about gender dysphoria within the restricted and restrictive setting of a girls' school (Bath Ladies' College) in the 1960s. (It was written in the 1990s). The narrator, "Mouse", is not the one with the dysphoria- that's her friend, Paulie, whose masculine incarnation is called Lewis - but she has plenty of adolescent angst of her own (a distant father and stepmother), so she falls easily into Paulie's view of the world. Paulie wants desperately to be male, which she sees as being the only state in which a person can have any agency. She puts Mouse through a series of tests, which include groping another girl, killing a pigeon (or trying to) and submitting to a caning, in order that she can achieve maleness, the superior state. The caning, along with Mouse's first relationship with an adolescent boy, causes Mouse to withdraw from Paulie's world.

We know from the beginning that some type of serious crime has been committed by Paulie, and that Mouse is fearful about the extent to which she will be implicated. There's a deft piece of misdirection, in that we deduce that Mouse's beloved and distant father dies somewhere in the story, and I spent most of the tale dreading that Paulie had murdered him. But he's not Paulie's victim, but a male who breaks all of Paulie's rules by (uncharacteristically) cross-dressing as a woman.

This all sounds a bit heavy, but the truth is that Mouse's voice is very astute and very funny in places. She feels like an outsider, but she's the kind of outsider who can articulate beautifully. The other girls, and the lesbian head teachers of the school (closeted, of course), come alive, and there are hyperdramatic dreams and dreamlike episodes to lend an air of menace. The ghostly woman on the tricycle makes perfect sense before we're done.

I'm putting this novel on my keepers shelf.