Review: Speak Easy

Catherynne M. Valente’s Speak Easy is everything I hoped it would be. Supposedly based on the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (although I admit I can’t see the similarity), it’s set in the Hotel Artemisia, New York, in 1929:

If you go looking for it, just about halfway uptown and halfway downtown, there’s this hotel stuck like a pin all the way through the world. Down inside the Artemisia it’s this mortal coil all over. Earthly delights on every floor.

It’s home to a kaleidoscopic cast of characters – flapper girls, bellboys, bootleggers, sex workers; Prohibition culture in miniature. At the centre of it all is Zelda Fair, apparently a fictional version of Zelda Fitzgerald, and the boy who’s besotted with her, Frankie (F. Scott, allegedly), who are drawn into a deadly game with Al, owner of the Artemisia and also King of the Underworld.

Do I remember the plot? Not AT all. For some readers this will be a bug, not a feature. For me – well, I was just enchanted by Valente’s wonderful, sparky prose, dense and rhythmic as poetry. This is a short read at less than 150 pages, but it took me a couple of days to read just because I wanted to savour it, luxuriate in it.

If Eve went door to door with her apple, not a soul in the Artemisia wouldn’t have grabbed it, planted a kiss on old Mama Fig Leaf, and had that shiny red temptation turned into the applejack of good and evil within an hour.

There’s a kind of frenzy to much of Valente’s writing, I think, an urge to get All the Words onto the page, which quite neatly reflects what’s going on in the Artemisia: a dash to squeeze as much juice from life as can be had, in parties and creative frenzies and intense friendships and affairs. It’s almost desperation, in fact, sequins thrown in the face of death. What little I’ve read of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life indicates a similar desperation: a youth spent in the scandalous pursuit of pleasure; a married life fuelled by alcohol and dancing, glamorous on the outside but bitter and argumentative within; an obsession with ballet that exhausted her physically and mentally. And then, poorly treated schizophrenia, creative frustration and an early death. Speak Easy is a beautiful thing, but it’s also a sad one, with Zelda looking forward to a long and hopeless marriage to a man who cares more about his own creative fulfilment than hers. So this is what Speak Easy is about, in the end: all the brilliant women whose vitality and creativity have been stolen by their men over the centuries, their thirst for life snuffed out or turned inwards, destructively. It’s a great book.

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