“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

During my school years, literature tended towards a very narrow set of experiences: those of the upper-class Victorian man, the noble Shakespearean prince, or even the feral schoolchild stranded on an island. I found enjoyment in studying these canonical narratives but it was only when I began my A-Levels that I opened the door to a more diverse array of stories, transcending narratives centred solely around the young white man.

Delving into the raunchy poetry of Carol Ann Duffy and Angela Carter’s evocative short stories, I felt my literary horizons expanding. Feminism and female sexual liberation took centre stage. While I still saw parts of my identity in Macbeth or Lord of the Flies, due to the universal themes of guilt, morality, and the darkness of human nature, I can’t say it was enough. I found a degree of empathy with the male characters, but it was a literary connection with limitations. When considering what insights this literature could offer about my own identity, relying solely on the male psyche became somewhat tiresome. For the longest time, I couldn’t articulate why these works simply did not resonate with me.  

However, it was only after leaving school, fueled by a determination to actively broaden my literary palate, that I truly understood the role of literature in shaping my identity.

Undoubtedly, literature has become a vital tool for expressing my identity, validating personal struggles, and introducing me to strife I might never otherwise encounter. I perceive each book as a mirror, reflecting aspects of my life, even when exposed to perspectives vastly different to my own. The inclusive and diverse nature of fiction provided a platform to navigate my thoughts and emotions, contributing to an ongoing dialogue about the intricate complexities of identity in an ever-evolving world. I’ve discovered a profound source of connection, empathy, and introspective validation, shedding light on the entangled layers of human identity. This, I believe, is the essence of this column. 

Within the pages of these books, I find voices that resonate with me. It’s a quest to uncover the women out there who, like me, suffer with triumph and failure. The women who, like me, also possess a voice. These literary counterpoints may not be flawless and in fact, they are often overflowing with imperfections. Sometimes they echo my own experiences while at other times they diverge. They exist in literature as they do in reality and I am privileged to be able to explore these myriad facets of women. 

After enduring numerous struggles, women now possess a room of their own to feel empowered, my own emerging within the lines of a book.

So, where better to start than here? 

Big Swiss and Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead 

Last month, I discovered two books that intricately explore the challenges associated with social isolation, the human longing for connection, and resorting to lies and deception as a form of solace. Both narratives centre around lesbian relationships, the need for validation, and the manifestation of mental illness, particularly paranoia.  

The first of the two is Big Swiss by Jen Beagin, released in February 2023. Set in New York, the story follows the journey of 40-year-old Greta, a lonely individual who secures a job as a transcriptionist for a somewhat questionable sex therapist. In her role, she transcribes therapy sessions featuring Flavia, a woman almost half her age whom she nicknames “Big Swiss”. Greta’s fascination with Flavia soon escalates to an obsession as she endeavours to uncover every detail about Flavia’s experiences, including her sexual trauma. 

An encounter at a dog park brings Greta face-to-face with Flavia. In a bid to avoid embarrassment, Greta conceals her occupation and true identity from Flavia, opting to approach her under false pretences. Despite Flavia being married, an affair ensues between the two characters, marked by passion and humour. However, Greta’s carefully constructed facade begins to unravel, jeopardising the confidentiality of the therapy and triggering a tumultuous spiral into chaos. 

While I can confidently say that I’ve never encountered a situation as unique as Greta and Flavia’s, I deeply empathise with Greta’s yearning for validation. Greta, isolated without friends and engulfed solely in her work, is immersed in a reality where she finds a primary companionship with her dog. It mirrors a lonely, monotonous existence, one I can relate to while at university. The demands of work keep me busy but not always for the right reasons, forcing me to have unhealthy obsessions with essay writing to escape the constant nagging in my mind.

Another point of resonance for me is the understanding of lesbian relationships. Growing up, I’ve often had conflicting emotions towards other women. Distinguishing between friendship and romance has proven challenging, leaving me in a hazy middle ground. While I don’t seek to diminish the romantic aspect of Greta and Flavia’s relationship, I ponder whether Greta’s pursuit might have been driven more by a desperation for companionship than the peculiar circumstances that brought them together.

This contemplation led me to Emily Austin’s Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead. The protagonist, Gilda, is an atheist lesbian who unexpectedly lands a job as a secretary for a Catholic church, replacing the recently deceased 86-year-old Grace. Gilda adopts a morbid fascination with death, succumbing to constant paranoia about its imminent arrival and the suspicious circumstances surrounding Grace’s demise. Amidst her hypochondriac tendencies, Gilda discovers emails addressed to Grace from an old friend inquiring about her whereabouts. Unable to bring herself to report Grace’s death, Gilda instead assumes her predecessor’s identity to forge a friendship. The novel, steeped in anxiety about the uncertainty of death, unfolds as Gilda forms an unlikely genuine friendship, tainted by the unfortunate situation. Much like Greta in Big Swiss, Gilda craves human connection without fully considering the repercussions of her deceit. 

Describing these protagonists as merely ‘deceptive’ feels overly simplistic. While their actions may align with such a characterisation, it’s important to acknowledge that their intentions are not so straightforward. As the saying goes, “the devil finds work for idle hands” not because of inherent evil but as a consequence of no alternative outlets for productivity. Both characters grapple with boredom and anxiety, seeking affection and validation, but instead find themselves ensnared in trouble. 

Boredom is a feeling I often wrestle with myself, uneasiness often accompanying it. Lying in these instances becomes a protective shield, a means to fabricate an identity that dispels discomfort. The familiar sensation of being drowned in insecurity parallels a desperate desire to swim to the surface and break free from the anchor of instability. It’s as if my soul really is left in the hands of the devil, the ultimate puppeteer in my life. When there is no trouble, I make it myself, although maybe that’s my BPD talking. 

There’s a notable connection between the protagonists’ lesbian identity and their shared understanding of social rejection, conditioning them to seek a semblance of normalcy even if it means inventing an entirely new identity. Within this inner conflict I feel seen: grappling with isolation and the pursuit of intimacy. The struggle to form connections and persistent fear of feeling fraudulent, even when not actively deceiving anyone, is a painful, constant ache. 

Big Swiss and Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead both navigate the intricate dynamics of deception, the delicate nature of trust, and the profound impact of mental illness on interpersonal relationships. These characters, with their complexities, somehow manage to reflect aspects of myself within their specificity, their struggles mirroring my own. While these novels may not provide the best solutions for combating loneliness, they certainly depict a realistic day filled with mundanity and isolation, and perhaps it’s sometimes enough just to know that you’re not alone.