Disturbed by Her Song by Tanith Lee (writing as and with Esther Garber and Judas Garbah) is a collection of short stories published by US LGBT+/speculative fiction publisher Lethe Press.
Lee, known for being one of the most prolific speculative fiction authors of our time, takes the interesting decision to write this collection as and with two of her fictional characters – a sister and brother duo, Esther Garber and Judas Garbah; one French Jewish and the other French Egyptian. The result is that the stories told by each carries a different texture, and there is an interplay between the two narrators/co-authors that tells its own story with its own family politics.
I’ll admit right away: I loved this collection. Immediately striking is the sensuality and dreamworld quality of the Garber/Garbah world, despite the lyrical lucidity with which Lee writes. Duality, then, is a key theme. For instance, the stories are often erotic, but not erotica. The book is not specifically sexual, although there are plenty of implication and a great deal of focus on sense and the body. The book is also speculative in various places, with elements of fantasy and horror – which are more or less prevalent, depending on which story you’re reading. These slipping and overlapping dualities add a great deal of versatility to the stories, and makes them more enjoyable as a result. Lee’s mastery of her craft is assured, and this is perhaps one of her most well-written books.
There is a particular enjoyment, for me, in Judas’ pieces – especially because of Lee’s excellent grasp of the ‘gay male’ viewpoint. Those stories really did feel authentically queer for me, written with a compelling voice and narrative perspective.
Similarly, Esther’s lesbian stories feel very authentic too, capturing a female sexual awareness that celebrates shared womanhood. Esther’s tales are the more uplifting of the two (in most cases), although the juxtaposition of both moods is welcome when reading the stories in quick succession.
Lee claims to be ‘channelling’ the voices of our sibling duo, and moves with them from 1940s Egypt to 19th Century Paris to pre-Raphaelite England to less distinct times and places that exist in the literary imagination. And ‘channelling’ is an appropriate description, with an often ghostly ambience permeating the stories herein.
There are nine stories in total, ranging from stories of loss and old age (‘Black-eyed Susan’, ‘Fleurs en Hiver’) to darkly magical tales (‘The Crow’, ‘The Kiss’, ‘Ne Que V’on Desir’) to lesbian gothic dramas (‘Black-eyed Susan’, ‘Death and the Maiden’). The title story is particularly poignant and has an emotional resonance that will stay with you long after reading.
Lee has definitely tried something new here, and I can see why she perhaps considered a small press over a larger one, as she’s been given the space to experiment and try something new.
I would also like to point out the glorious interior design – this is a very attractive book, with an attention to detail you might not see with those bigger publishers. I applaud Lethe for their efforts.
Overall, a very impressive and surprising collection, which yields multiple rewards.
You can pick up a copy of the book at Amazon.