Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

Yellow Jessamine is a queer gothic horror novella following shipping magnate, poisoner and pretend-widow Evelyn Perdanu as a terrifying plague of mysterious origin devastates her already dying city.

I will start by saying that I’m not completely sure I got this. Horror endings are some of the most polarizing things to read for me, as them not resonating can break the book, and I think that’s what happened here. The ending made sense, and it wasn’t necessarily underwhelming, but I still finished the novella thinking “that’s it?”: it didn’t make sense to me on an emotional level. However, that’s something so personal that I don’t think it should discourage others from picking the book up, despite it being the main reason I didn’t get much out of this.

Because there is a lot to love about Yellow Jessamine. A story that knows the potential of a creepy poison garden is a story I want to love, and so is a story that explores how someone’s paranoia can be at the same time their strength and their downfall. It is a creeping spiral from misanthropy to paranoia, all rooted in a self-loathing so overwhelming that it masks every other feeling in Evelyn’s mind.

That might be one of the reasons people on goodreads aren’t recognizing this as a queer book, but it is, and it’s clearly queer early on. No, the main character isn’t in a place where she can think about loving or anything similar. However, anyone who isn’t forcing heteronormativity on the novel can recognize that Evelyn is meant to be a portrayal of a lesbian who happens to be deeply unwell, given that from the beginning Evelyn spends a lot of time thinking about her maid Violetta undressing her, describes Violetta as (quoting) “special”, “radiant”, and the only good person in the world, and becomes clearly uncomfortable when men show any interest in her.
I wish people realized that we’re used to dismiss – often, even in ourselves – signs of women being attracted to women at every turn because of how homophobia and misogyny shape the way we understand and recognize desire. There’s a reason “just gals being pals” about obviously gay situations is a lesbian meme. To not take this at all under account and just stating “this isn’t really queer” is to reinforce heteronormativity.
This isn’t a love story, this is a tale about devotion and obsession and downfall. Queer people exist – and should get to exist in fiction – outside of clear romantic storylines.

Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this. Reading Yellow Jessamine felt like following something to its inevitable consequence, but the atmosphere wasn’t strong enough for that to work: it should have felt creepy and ominous, but everything was too vague and barely-grounded. Maybe I would have liked it more had it sacrificed some of its readability (it is a quick read) for some heavier writing. More detail and clear indication of how things looked like would have made the whole story feel much more claustrophobic. You can’t feel trapped in a manor if the book doesn’t even really bother telling you how it looks like.

I still have a lot of respect for how casually messed up this book gets, and Evelyn is a fascinating if somewhat static (that’s kind of the point! She is rooted) character to follow, but I don’t know how much it will stay with me.

My rating: β˜…β˜…β˜…

7 thoughts on “Review: Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

  1. I totally get what you mean about it being a quick read and thus not IMMERSIVE enough. That happens quite a lot – when tge author decides to sacrifice the plot and character development for the sake of making it an easier read, sacrificing the immersive quality o the story – I HATE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS! It feels like suh a waste of time in the end.

    And yet, there seem to be, as you said, some really good things about the book that are worth giving at least a single read! Also, I love how you pointed out that your displeasure with the book is based on personal preferences and not on something basic that would bother everyone – I think it’s always important to note that!

    Loved reading this review!!! 😍😍πŸ₯°β€

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi! I agree, I feel like slowing down the story just a little sometimes would make certain books so much better – this one especially. What is Gothic horror without well-built atmosphere?
      And thank you!!

      Like

  2. Wow, that first line of your review really caught my attention. I love your reflection on why it might not be recognized as a queer story. I wonder if I would like this. It will probably be hit or miss for me as well but you’ve intrigued me enough to add it to my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

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