I have always been attracted to stories which have an Old World flavor—ivory cameo-miniatures with gorgeous language and intriguing characters moving at a languid pace—so Tanith Lee’s collection, Disturbed By Her Song, is just what I’ve been looking for to while away these long summer nights.
Lee writes here as both Esther and Judas Garber, alter egos she spends too much time fleshing out in a prologue to the stories. This prologue is so superfluously detailed, I almost stopped reading the book. Unless you’re dying to know their background and how Lee came to “know” them, this can be skipped with absolutely no difficulty.
The meat of the book is the stories, and the meals that follow this passionless appetizer are sumptuous, indeed. The first course, “Youth and Age,” is comprised of two stories by Esther Garber, “Black Eyed Susan” and “The Kiss” in which young girls interact with older women. “Black Eyed Susan” is an interesting ghost-story-without-a-ghost featuring Sylvie, a hotel chambermaid and her investigation into the origin of a mysterious black-eyed figure she encounters on the stairs. “The Kiss” is a tight vignette about an autograph seeker with an unusual request of an aging stage actress.
The second section, “Youth,” begins with Judas Garbah’s “Ne Que V’on Desir,” a terrific story about a strange, sexually ravenous train passenger which also appears in Steve Berman’s Wilde Stories 2010. Loaded with atmospheric dread, this is Lee at her best. Also notable is Judas Garbah’s coming-of-age story “The Alexandrians,” which features a young boy and the older man who helps him to realize who and what he is.
However, it’s Esther Garber’s “Death and the Maiden,” that makes the strongest impression. It’s the story of a woman named Ruth who becomes involved with Vera Blaze, the wife of a famous painter, and her daughter, Emerald, who worships her father to … well, unhealthiness. In order to win Vera, Ruth must first seduce Emerald—and do so well enough that the girl will ultimately reject all men in favor of the female sex. It’s a tall order and one that has surprising, shocking results for all involved.
The last section, “Age,” begins with two sketches by Judas Garbah, the short short “Fleurs en Hiver” and the impressionistic dreamscape of “The Crow.” Again, Esther Garber ends the section with the title story, “Disturbed By Her Song,” an elegy for a potential relationship between two actresses, Georgina and the exotic and unknowable Sula Dule.
None of these stories is plot-driven. They are all about characters who unfold like rare orchids, the movement of each petal a revelation until their secrets are shyly revealed. Buy a copy, bend down and inhale their heady aroma. It will make you dizzy, beguile you and stay in your head for days.
Just the perfume for late summer madness.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler