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Justine Saracen’s latest thriller, Mephisto Aria, brims with delights for every sort of reader. Set in the glamorous, intrigue-saturated world inhabited by international opera stars, the novel uses the story of rising German diva Katharina Marovsky to explore the many reverberations of the Faust story in contemporary life and art. Faustian bargains abound, proliferating so quickly that they can seem to define the world in which the characters must live. Faustian bargains of both sexual self-silencing and its opposite, pornographic sexual excess shape individual destinies even as they mirror the overarching Faustian bargain between art and commerce on which the industry that is opera depends.  Yet at each level of Saracen’s deliciously complicated plot, the characters who are capable of self-knowledge and of love evaded their contracts with the devil, rescued by each other’s feats of queerly gendered derring-do done in the name of love. In the end, after vividly described, genuinely hair-raising encounters with the opposing powers of repressive, exploitative evil and of passionate, liberating love, it is the love of fathers and daughters, of men for each other, of women for each other, of artists for each other and for their art that triumphs.   But delight at love’s triumph, and at Saracen’s queer reworkings of the Faust legend, are not this novel’s only pleasures. Saracen’s understanding of the world around opera is profound. She captures the sweat, fierce intelligence, terror and exultation that characterize singers’ daily lives, in rehearsal and performance, she evokes well the camaraderie that a production’s cast and crew share, and she brings to literary life the curious passions that bind people who make music together.   Brilliantly fusing the insights of twenty years-worth of feminist and queer opera criticism to lesbian fantasy fiction, Saracen has written a passionate, action-packed thriller that sings—indeed, that sings the triumph of Rosenkavalier’s trio of lovers over Dr. Faustus’ joyless composer. Brava! Brava! Brava!
Sarah, Son of God is the latest in an outstanding line of adventure/mystery novels from Justine Saracen that re-examine history through rainbow-coloured eyes. On the surface, there’s a natural temptation to describe her as the gay/lesbian answer to Dan Brown, but the truth is that she’s so much more than that. Her characters are better developed, the romance is honest (not clichéd), the scenery is breathtaking, and she’s wonderfully adept at letting the history, rather than the puzzle, carry the story along. Like many of her novels, Justine places an attractive and intelligent woman at the forefront of the story. The fact that Joanna is a lesbian has very real implications. It is used to cast light on the social concerns of the time (late 1960s/early 1970s), and on the religious culture of Venice, but it never dominates the story.  Her partner, the exquisite Sara, is something of a unique character in Justine’s work (and what initially attracted me to the story). Sara is transgendered, and although she herself isn’t quite sure where she falls in the transvestite/transsexual spectrum, she is clearly more comfortable in the expression of her femininity. Much like Joanna’s sexuality, her gender has immediate and ongoing implications for both women, and the development of their relationship (both personal and professional) casts its own light on events. While there is an element of romance here, it’s rather more subdued than in some of Justine’s other novels, but it’s handled beautifully. When Joanna first meets Tadzio, she’s distinctly uncomfortable with the well-dressed young man who so blatantly defies gender stereotypes with his earrings, mascara, and lipstick. Although he knows his languages and his history, Joanna is justifiably concerned for the reaction his appearance is likely to elicit in the religious climate of Venice. When he returns the next day, this time as Sara, a tentative foundation of trust, respect, and friendship is established. Their relationship fluctuates over the course of the story, with both women making significant social gaffes with one another, but it isn’t long before we, as readers, begin to hope for the bloom of romance. Visually, this is an absolutely gorgeous story, filled with a wealth of detail. Justine travelled extensively in her research, and that commitment to the story shows. From the streets of New York city to the canals of Venice; from the halls of academia to the vaults of the church; from the filthy depths of a Spanish prison cell to the equally filthy decks of a Venetian ship; in each case, Justine sets our feet firmly in the scene and allows us to see and feel not only what she herself witnessed, but what the characters are experiencing. Historically, this is a tale within a tale, presenting us with the stories of two women – Sarah, whose sacrifice changed history significantly; and Leonora, whose trials have made it possible for that sacrifice to finally come to light. Much of the story is told through a series of letters written by Leonora, detailing her captivity, torture, and treacherous escape from the hands of the Inquisition. All of this is a result of her involvement in publishing the story of Sarah, which takes us back to ancient Rome, and provides an interesting eye-witness account of Jesus and his disciples. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, but to reveal the significance of her account, and why the Church has killed to keep it hidden, would be to spoil the mystery. Overall, this is a story that works – and satisfies – on so many levels. It’s entertaining and informative, inspiring and challenging. There is no question that the mystery of Sarah’s story is controversial, but it’s a very interesting approach to history . . . and one that I, personally, found very attractive. Some readers may have trouble getting past their emotional response to the secret, but it truly is worth the effort involved. Definitely recommended.
Review of:  Sarah, Son of God Sally Bibrary Bending the Bookshelf April 2011
Review of:  Mephisto Aria Suzanne G. Cusick Professor of Music New York University October,  2009
Review of:  Beloved Gomorrah Jerry Wheeler Out in Print March 2013
I can’t think of anything more incongruous than ancient Biblical texts, scuba diving, Hollywood lesbians, and international art installations but I do know that there’s only one author talented and savvy enough to make it all work. That’s just what the incomparable Justine Saracen does in her latest, Beloved Gomorrah. Sculptor and scuba diver Joanna Boleyn is engaged in an art project on a coral reef in the Red Sea. While diving to scope out her assigned spot, she finds some cuneiform tablets—and gets attacked by a shark, attracted by dead fish thrown from a yacht owned by film actress Kaia Kapulani. Kapulani’s lowbrow agent/husband Bernie suggests they forestall a lawsuit by paying Joanna’s hospital bills and inviting her onboard to recuperate. Kaia and Joanna fall in love, of course, their affair complicated by Kaia’s marriage, international intrigue, a bombing, a murder attempt and—oh yes—an ancient re-telling of Sodom and Gomorrah that could rock all of organized religion. This is a heady brew for anyone, but Saracen makes it all not only accessible but damn fun to read. The debunking of the religious myth could have been overwhelming, especially to atheists like myself, but Saracen sets the scene, lays the background, and then sets off the bomb with considerable restraint—just enough to parallel the affair between Joanna and Kaia. And that’s another tale. As fun as standing mythologies on their heads may be, it’s not enough for entertaining fiction. For that, you need an interesting plot and three-dimensional characters to work through it. Again, Beloved Gomorrah  comes up a winner. Joanna is a wonderful creation: adventurous, loving, and passionate about her art. Kaia is more than a match for her—a woman on the verge of shaking up her life and her career in more ways than one; an aging actress ready to move into the next phase. Saracen’s prose is efficient and purposeful; it’s straightforward enough to get the point across and just showy enough to make you grin while reading. My favorite example is this perfect sentence: “Seven o’clock and the sky was just turning from whorish orange-fuschia-pink to respectable blue.” It still makes me smile. She also has a great ear for dialogue that sounds spoken instead of written. Even if you’re not interested in Sodom and Gomorrah as paradise or seeing avenging angels as terrorists, you’ll love being sucked underwater by Saracen’s characters in this addictingly readable novel. Highly recommended.
Justine Saracen - Reviews