‘Another Life Altogether’ by Elaine Beale

When Jesse Bennett’s family moves to a small town on northern England after her mother’s return home from a mental hospital, more than anything Jesse wants to fit in at her new school. At the center of Another Life Altogether is a classic adolescent conflict: Jesse wants to be, not an outsider, but an insider. For Jesse, the obstacles to popularity are her incipient lesbianism and her secret about her mother’s mental illness. Yet, in the setting of a new school, Jesse makes friends and becomes an insider, and in the process she realizes the cost of acceptance. Malcolm, whose overtures of friendship are rejected by Jesse because he is belittled by her new friends, is labeled a ‘pooftah’ by kids at the school. Jesse witnesses the consequences of name-calling and ostracism, which escalate to bullying and violence as the story unfolds; and Jesse herself becomes a target when one of her secrets is discovered.

In Beale’s hands, the brutality of Jesse’s cohort against Malcolm is revealed deftly—and painfully. The physical brutality is mirrored by the emotional turmoil that Jesse experiences when her sense of truth and fair play are tested. Beale writes compelling, if difficult, passages about how Malcolm as a young gay man is targeted, harassed, and, ultimately, assaulted by his peers. It is a gripping plotline; Beale renders these scenes with great detail and care, subtly drawing attention to contemporary dialogues about bullying of LGBT young people in schools. One of the most satisfying aspects of Another Life Altogether is how well-executed the plot and climax are; the second half of the book, while predictable at moments, is fast-paced and engaging.

At the center of this novel is the Bennett family, Jesse, her mother, father, aunt, uncle, and grandmother. Each is quirky and interesting. Beale animates the Bennett family with stories and tidbits that are colorful and slightly off-beat. House repair and wedding preparations become metaphors for the larger emotional landscape of the family and are both understated and ultimately powerful. The Bennett family is well-drawn and even reminiscent of the family in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World. Other characters, however, don’t benefit from Beale’s close attention and are at times stock, for instance, the “hippie” English teacher who speaks out on behalf of fair treatment lesbian and gay people or the adolescent bullies.

Although Another Life Altogether is not simply a lesbian coming of age novel, it is in the tradition of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. The adolescent voice of Jesse Bennett, however, isn’t as authentic as the voices of Jeanette and Molly Bolt in those novels, or as memorable as the voices of other iconic novels of adolescence, such as Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Precious in Sapphire’s Push. What makes Another Life Altogether original and interesting is the intertwined narratives of a young lesbian coming of age and the Bennett family’s experience with mental illness. Members of the Bennett family have a wide range of responses—avoidance, anger, appeasement, denial—to Jesse’s mother and her mental illness. Without pathologizing Jesse’s mother, Beale creates a portrait of mental illness that is honest and complex; there are no easy answers for any member of the family.

While I read Another Life Altogether, I thought about Sarah Schulman’s critique of contemporary lesbian fiction publishing in the United States. Schulman contends in Ties That Bind (The New Press, 2009) that “the only overt lesbian protagonists by lesbian authors to be allowed on mainstream America’s bookshelves were from Britain.” She argues that in the United States, “no lesbian writer with lesbian content could be treated the same way here” as lesbian writers from Britain. Part of what I find haunting about Schulman’s analysis (and I should disclose that I worked with her as the editor at The new Press) is the bleak future that it seems to offer for lesbian writers in the United States. Will we not have beloved authors published by mainstream publishing houses again? In the end, Schulman is not, in fact, pessimistic but hopeful, and an exuberant advocate for U.S. lesbian writers with a vision of equality and inclusion for lesbians in publishing. Her outline of the dynamics of U.S. publishing over the past decade, however, is an incisive critique.

Beale’s novel seems to counter Schulman’s argument. Another Life Altogether is published by a major U.S. publisher. It has at its center a lesbian character, but Beale’s novel is set in England, and, while I don’t want to diminish the fact that it is fundamentally a lesbian coming of age novel, Another Life Altogether is circumscribed to one year of Jesse’s adolescence. Part of Schulman’s critique is about the failure of U.S. publishing to deal with lesbian characters centrally and in the fullness of our lives. In this way, while it is exciting to read a new novel that includes lesbian experience at its center published by a major U.S. publisher, Beale’s novel fails to fundamentally alter the dynamics of contemporary publishing of lesbian novels in the U.S. This, of course, is not a criticism of Beale or of Another Life Altogether; in fact, Beale is a fine writer and one who hopefully will produce other finely rendered portrayals of lesbians. It is, however, a point of concern for lesbian readers. Seasoned readers of lesbian novels want to know, what happens to Jesse Bennett when she grows up? Is the waiting world, “beautiful and immense,” as she predicts it might be in the final sentence? We will have to keep reading elsewhere to find out—and wait for future novels from Beale if she has some of the answers.

Ultimately, Another Life Altogether is about the power of speaking the truth. Jesse speaks the truth about lesbianism and her mother’s mental illness and is joined by other members of her clan in speaking the truths from their lives. This theme may be what defines contemporary queer novels—the possibility of life that exists when the half-truths and moments of silence are stripped away and truth and honesty emerge to transform people’s lives. Beale handles these moments of truth-telling with grace and aplomb; that is the reason to read, and enjoy, Another Life Altogether.

By Elaine Beale
Spiegel & Grau
ISBN: 978-0385530040
Hardcover, 402p, $26

Julie R. Enszer has an MFA from the University of Maryland and is currently enrolled in the PhD program in Women’s Studies at Maryland. Her first book of poetry, Handmade Love, was published by A Midsummer Night’s Press in 2010. You can read more about her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.