Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. ★★★ 1/2
Trigger warning: Suicide
Passing Strange is an enchanting tale of queer women and their love in 1940 San Francisco.
This novella begins in the modern day, with an elderly woman named Helen retrieving a piece of artwork she had secreted away in an abandoned building. We soon find that the drawing is the almost legendary final piece of the famed pulp artist Haskel. But what’s the story behind this artwork? The narrative then skips back to the year 1940 and a circle of friends revolving around the lesbian club Mona.
While Passing Strange is clear on its inclusion of magic, the fantasy elements are subdued enough that it could be argued as magical realism instead of historical fantasy. There’s a little bit of magic in the very beginning to let you know the rules of the story, but it then largely disappears from the narrative until the end. I’m not sure how I feel about Passing Strange‘s handling of fantastic elements. By only using magic at the very end, it made it feel more like a deus ex machina than an organic part of the story.
I don’t think I have ever read a historical fantasy novel focused on the queer community. Historical fantasy that included queer characters? Sure. But they’d usually only be one or two supporting characters, not the majority of the cast. And even those supporting characters are usually male. This was definitely the first time I’ve read anything historical focusing on queer women.
Reading Passing Strange led me towards some historical information I was entirely unaware of. For instance, I had no idea that there were lesbian clubs back in the 30’s and 40’s. I also didn’t know about the Three-Piece Rule – a law where to avoid being arrested for cross-dressing, a woman had to wear at least three items of “female” clothing. Passing Strange led me down several different Google rabbit holes while I researched things I read about in the story.
Passing Strange beautifully captured its time period. The descriptions of the World Fair were gorgeous, and the novella as a whole felt very atmospheric and visual. FYI, Passing Strange doesn’t flinch away from portraying some of the period homophobia and racism.
The key focus of Passing Strange is the relationship between Emily and Haskell. I don’t think romance tends to work well in shorter formats such as novellas – you need time to build up the relationship. However, I think Passing Strange did as well as could be expected. The only thing that felt at all strange was how Emily and Haskell were willing to spend the rests of their lives together after knowing each other for what… a week? I also found some of the supporting characters difficult to keep track of as they received a lot less focus.
If you’re looking for a historical story focusing on queer women, I certainly recommend Passing Strange.
I received an ARC of Passing Strange from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.