Recently, I sent my friend Alex a copy of a book I love, Lucy Sussex’s Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies. She hasn’t read the book yet, but she has given me permission to put up an edited version of the letter that accompanied it, because she knows how much I love this book. Alex also knows how I want everyone on the planet to buy and read this book.
On that note, have the links for Amazon and Book Depository. Unfortunately, Ticonderoga Publications have not as yet released an e-book (though I’m told they are working on it). For the record, I don’t use affiliate links, but Russell once gave me $10 off the books I was buying because apparently if I stand up in front of a room full of fellow geeks drunk I will yell “if you don’t buy this books you’re a fucking moron”. And then people will by the book. So that’s full disclosure for y’all.
I feel like this is a personal gift, but it probably requires explanation and bonus probably-over-the-top review to explain why I love it so much. I am assuming you have not read this story or any of Sussex’s other work, but she is published internationally and I could be completely wrong. Laugh at me if this is the case.
Lucy Sussex is my favourite Australian writer for one reason: the story “The Queen of Erewhon”.
But back to “The Queen of Erewhon” and it’s importance to me. I read this story when I was around 13. It was in some Best SF Of The Year collection my grandparents had gotten me for Christmas. The collection as a whole was quite dull, the usual uninspiring, uninteresting cheap short story tricks that were driving me mad and getting me kicked out of English Lit classes and put me off attempts to “analyse” prose for a good few years.
That last story in the book, though. Right at the back. This story about these women’s lives and the tragedy of Erewhon, it… fucking haunted me. When I eventually reached it, I read it over and over and, unusually for short stories (where previously I found them useless and empty), I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Weird looks from the friends I was brave enough to show it to.
The story was eye-opening, a beautiful post-ozone-layer post-climate-change dystopia, brimming with history and layers and richness and such a strong fabric of a tiny community, its cultures and its world.
It was my introduction to the fact that lesbians and lesbianism were a real thing, not just an insult yelled at you from cars as you walked home. It was something real and something that could be okay. The story covers the whole spectrum, in hindsight, also introducing me to ideas of polyamory, bisexuality and thoughts I wouldn’t understand till a decade later. Can you tell this story hypnotised me and stayed with me a bit? I think it’s a rare gift of a short story to manage such a thing. Especially in a 13 year old.
Even if you don’t read the rest, or read only some of this book and hate it, please make sure that you read this story and consider that my gift. I will be shocked if you hate it or can’t understand why I love it so much.
Okay, I have tried to explain my feelings and the importance of this story to me so many times now. I think I might be in love with this story a bit. I want it to be seen more, and wow do I want friends to have opinions on it.
The Actual Review of the Rest of the Book
(I’ve gone back through this and named one of the stories for the benefits of the internet. I deliberately left this vague in the original letter.)
There is more to the book than just the one awesome story and a fucking fantastic title! However I am less confident of the amazingness as a whole, though it does hold up well overall I think. It is a Best Of style collection, and spans from the 80s onward. 80s and 90s, some of it very Australiana lit type fiction (‘Red Ochre’, ‘The Lipton Tea Society’) in a way that makes me cringe a little while recommending. It may be cultural cringe or my dislike of Melbourne suburban romanticisation though.
Politics are probably partly the reason for this. Some of the stories, like ‘A Tour Guide in Utopia,’ have strong anti-John Howard (a conservative PM 1996 to 2007) mentions that are just clumsy in their left-wing hatred. Not that it wasn’t deserved, but… it’s something doesn’t work. Feels melodramatic and has aged poorly for most audiences, I think. But then, I was very young when Howard was PM.
I should mention that ‘A Tour Guide in Utopia’ is otherwise fantastic, a story that involves a young historian meeting her early 18th-C feminist idol, one of the stronger stories. The meeting and the time-traveller aren’t romanticised! Sussex shows the flows in past feminisms in all their fucked up glory, while still showing the importance of not losing these women to history. I like this story for expressing really beautifully something I struggle with. It’s a fun piece too.
Conveniently, as an aside, this is also the book that gave me a hell of a lot more respect for the term herstory.
There’s two other stories I fell in absolute love with reading this book. “Merlusine” and “My Lady Tongue”.
Both mention sexual violence, I think it’s just these two stories but I can’t guarantee.
Look, I feel Sussex handles the topic appropriately and with sensitivity and in order to make important points on the world BUT just because I don’t find it gratuitous and terrible, doesn’t make it a safe space story.
That aside, both stories are full of beautiful lines and characters I am in love with despite themselves. “My Lady Tongue” especially, because who doesn’t love feminist utopias with cheeky wonderful lesbians, pulling pranks and being awesome and over the top while being kept in check by powerful awesome older ladies?
This letter is getting long, so I’m going to get a little shorter about the rest, but essentially it’s full of feminisms, lesbians and SF. STUFFED FULL OF THESE IN FACT. Some other repeating themes include stories with creepy doll horror (“La Sentinelle”, “Frozen Charlottes”), detective women (“The Revenant”, “God and Her Black Sense of Humour”) and more fantastic dystopias. There’s some not bad stories on Australian and non-Australian landscapes and history (“Red Ochre”, “The Lottery” and “Argent Clouds”).
There’s also a lot of historical-meta style fiction exploring how society views history and literature and the lenses that have been put on (such as “Phil & Kay”, “Absolute Uncertainty”). Unfortunately most of these histories are 18th to 20th century, there’s only a little in ancient history.
Basically, I hope you enjoy this book even a fraction of the amount that I have.
Love and Lesbians,