- Gaudi Afternoon by Barbara Wilson
Virago, 172 pp, £4.99, August 1991, ISBN 1 85381 264 1
- The players come again by Amanda Cross
Virago, 229 pp, £12.99, August 1991, ISBN 1 85381 306 0
- Poetic Justice by Amanda Cross
Virago, 176 pp, £4.99, August 1991, ISBN 1 85381 025 8
- Birth Marks by Sarah Dunant
Joseph, 230 pp, £13.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 7181 3511 3
- Burn Marks by Sara Paretsky
Virago, 340 pp, £4.99, April 1991, ISBN 1 85381 279 X
- Deep Sleep by Frances Fyfield
Heinemann, 198 pp, £13.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 434 27426 7
If you are a woman who loves women, and Latin American magic realist blockbusters, and if you’ve been to Barcelona for a brief holiday recently, Barbara Wilson’s Gaudi Afternoon is just the novel for you. It has a great new heroine, Cassandra Reilly, an Irish-American dyke of fortysomething, who seems to spend her life sorting out people’s problems here and there, translating the odd thing from the Spanish and having a girlfriend or two in every port of call. Cassandra has wit, a pleasant writing-style, and a good ear for dialogue. She has a cool way of filling you in on just enough detail about her chosen setting to let you know she’s read slightly more historico-architectural guides to Barcelona, dallied somewhat longer around the bars of the Gothic Barrio, the sloping paths and ceramic follies of the Parc Güell, than you have. And the extracts she lets you in on from La Grande y Su Hija, the book she’s translating at the moment, take the piss very prettily from the wilder excesses of the Eighties translations-from-the-Spanish boom.
Although Gaudi Afternoon is marketed under Virago’s crime imprint, it isn’t really a crime novel at all. It is an ably-managed piece of plot-driven pulp with a mystery in it, crafted as carefully as an advert to appeal to certain target audiences. It’s a novel that affirms lesbians, by showing that lesbians – i.e. Cassandra – can be as rampantly, glamorously promiscuous as any James Bond, without being insensitive to the feelings of the women they leave. And it’s a novel that affirms women, by showing that women – i.e. Cassandra – don’t have to be fey and nymphlike in order to get loved. And it’s a novel that affirms the bohobeatnik lifestyle by suggesting that people – i.e. Cassandra – don’t have to have a private income in order to spend their lives globetrotting, sorting out people’s problems and drinking cafe con leche in interesting little bars. Gaudi Afternoon is, in short, a ‘right-on’ leisure novel, an example of the one new fictional genre to get born in Britain in the last ten years.
Right-on leisure novels, published under such imprints as Virago Crime, Pluto Crime, Women’s Press Science Fiction, form a movement that has been growing in popularity over the last half-dozen years. The idea behind them is simple. Pulp writing, easy-to-read plot-driven detective-stories, thrillers, Science Fiction, romance, is popular, powerful and fun, but stuffed with sinister subliminal messages about deviance and social order. Because liberal readers, influenced by university socialism, feminism, anti-racism and so on, find such stuff offensive, a new market for fun fiction catering to their sensitive tastes has opened up. And because such readers are precisely the people whose disposable wealth was greatly enhanced by the false-spring media and finance boom of the Eighties, small, independent publishers, able to expand thanks to the self-same boom, fall over themselves to plug the gap. Virago Crime, Women’s Press Science Fiction, and a welter of smaller, now failed imprints, were and are a mixture of the odd inspired reprint, a lot of ‘rediscovered’ second-raters, and new material commissioned under the right-on rubric. Gaudi Afternoon is, in its merry way, a classic of the form.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.