Rhoda Lerman, The Book of the Night (©1984, Women’s Press 1986)
This book is on a list of SF/F must-reads I stumbled on some years ago, a list that has since introduced me to some wonderful novels from the dark crannies of the genre, as well as its spotlit centre-stage (some of my blog posts about them are here, here, here and here). I took The Book of the Night down from my TBR SF/F bookshelf thinking it would be a bit of light reading before I move on to Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do or other demanding reads. Ha! A 1984 Kirkus Review may have been a tad negative, but it captured something of the feel of the book when it called it an ‘an over-riddling allegory, steamy as a cow shed with unprocessed invention and quasi-feminist murk.’
This is a book set on the Irish island of Iona in the 10th century CE, though elsewhere in the world it’s the late 20th century: coke-bottle caps turn up in the first chapter and a tourist group comes visiting at one stage. On the island is a monastery whose monks who are caught up in that great moment when the Irish church was resisting the call to be obedient to Rome. And there is traffic between the world of the living and that of the dead. The main character, Celeste, is brought to the island as a young girl by her father who becomes increasingly lost in incoherent quasi-mystical wordplay. He sends her, disguised as a boy, to join the monastery, and through a series of misadventures, including some spectacularly metaphorical sex, she becomes – as you do – a cow.
There’s a man who by flapping his arms and farting flies out a window. Celeste’s father has unmetaphorical sex with a woman who comes to the island as a cook, and Celeste, who at that stage is believed to be a (human) male, is cast out of the monastery as the putative father. There’s a bloody battle, a walk through the underworld, an underclass who deliberately split their noses to avoid paying a nose tax. There’s more than one scene where a human man and a cow have consensual sex – told from the cow’s point of view. At least, I think that’s what’s happening among all the fiery language. Above all, there’s elaborate punning wordplay, and the whole story seems to revolve around the philosophical concept that, according to an authorial note, under certain circumstances, ‘An organism is able to reorganise itself into a higher level of order, to transcend itself.’
Take this as a confession of my thickness, but none of it made much sense to me. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the ride. The Kirkus Reviewer was wrong to describe the book as an allegory. That’s like wanting the zombies in zombie movies to mean something: maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but if you don’t respond to them viscerally as zombies, there’s no point. Rhoda Lerman may be have been exploring serious ideas, but (did I mention the farting man who flew?) she’s not po-faced about it. I did go back and skim-read the first couple of chapters again, and it turns out that this is one of those books where that’s a fruitful thing to do: what felt like gobbledygook on first reading now casts light on the confusing and tumultuous final few pages. I’m not going to read it all again, at least not right away, but I’m prepared to believe that in the midst of the exuberant, self-contradictory, sometimes chaotic eventfulness and wordiness, which are a blast in their own right, there’s something coherent going on.
As far as I can tell, this was Rhoda Lerman’s only fantasy novel. I have no idea what impact if any she had on the genre. It’s a long way from The Lord of the Rings.