If anyone here doesn’t recognize the name of Tanith Lee, she is a legend among fantasy writers and the author of over ninety novels. Her work has been attracting a cult following since the 1970s, when she sold her first book to DAW Press. Her tales are elaborate, but her words are as carefully chosen as precious jewels. Her eccentricities can be forgiven.
As an example of her quirks, she claims that this collection of stories was co-written by two other people. In “Meeting the Garbers,” Tanith Lee claims:
I first met the Garbers in the 1990s; that is, I met Esther [who then ‘wrote’ two books], and her brother, Judas. Anna didn’t turn up, though she subsequently sent me a polite and kindly note.
Why Anna chose to send the author a note instead of “turning up” is a mystery. None of the Garbers (two Jewish sisters and their half-Arabian half-brother, who spells the family name differently) is real. They are two or three alter egos of Tanith Lee.
All the stories in this book include same-sex relationships, so the use of several writing personae (including that of a gay man) serves the illusion that these stories are based on the direct experience of characters other than the author.
One theme that runs through this book is the contrast between youth and age, or between the chutzpah of the young and the world-weariness of those with more experience. In "Black-Eyed Susan," supposedly co-written by Esther Garber, young Esther goes to work as a maid in a shabbily genteel, nearly-empty hotel in a French town in winter. A silent woman with coal-black eyes can be seen walking down the corridors from time to time. Esther wonders if she is a ghost or simply an illusion, but comes to suspect that she is the younger spirit of an old woman who is part of the history of the hotel. In her prime, the dark-eyed woman was sexually attracted to women--like Esther.
In "Alexandrians," Judas Garbah remembers his neglected childhood in Egypt, and the male friend of his mother who noticed him and explained something:
I'll teach you two new words. A woman who loves another woman is called for an island, Lesbos, a Lesbian. But a man who loves another man is called for Alexander, who was the son of a god, and loved men, and for his city by the sea, Alexandria. . . . Will you be an Alexandrian, Judas?
Judas was unable to answer that question at the time, but as an adult, he remembers this conversation and the tingling touch of the man who paid attention to him.
None of these stories includes explicit sex, but eroticism runs all through them, and desire is shown to be the stuff of life. Yearning for the body and the soul of another person is shown to be the thread that connects the present with the past as it offers a way to transcend each person’s essential isolation.
The title story, "Disturbed by Her Song," is the most haunting. Few writers could describe a one-sided crush at such length so movingly. Georgina, a minor singer/actress, first meets fellow-actress Sula Dale when both are in their twenties. Georgina is impressed with Sula's performance in a classical Greek play. Georgina tries to cultivate a friendship with her, but Sula doesn't respond. Over decades, Georgina dreams about Sula and wishes she could sing for her. After several unsuccessful relationships with other women, Georgina writes a play for Sula to star in. Sula is grateful for the work, but doesn't seem to remember meeting Georgina before.
The key to the puzzle of this non-relationship is provided by an older man in the theatre world, someone Georgina respects. He tells a story within the story:
“Once upon a time,” Marc said to them. . . “there was a princess, outside whose high bedroom window a nightingale sang every night from a tree, a pomegranate, or perhaps a blossoming plum.
“While the nightingale sang, the princess slept deeply and well. . . However there came a night when the nightingale, for reasons of its own, did not sing but flew far away. In the morning the princess summoned a gardener and commanded that the tree be cut down. He protested, saying the tree was young, healthy and fruitful. But the princess would have none of that. She told him that all that one previous night a nightingale had perched in the tree, and her sleep had been very much disturbed by its song.”
The group of friends who hear this story in a restaurant discuss its meaning. Years later, Georgina remembers the conversation and realizes that she and Sula have each been a kind of absent presence for each other.
Tanith Lee's fiction always has the uncanny quality of dreams and fantasies, even when it seems to take place in the real world. She tells teaching stories whose lessons seem to hover somewhere just out of reach. If you haven't read her work before, you've been deprived.