Eight Strings by Margaret DeRosia

Fleeing an unwanted betrothal, Francesca takes on the disguise of a young man and joins a Venetian puppet theater as an apprentice. But the persona is not just a way to enter the male-only world of the theater; he feels at home as Franco. But Venice is small, and exposure would threaten everything he has. When he encounters Annella, a figure from his past, he fears for his safety – but his secret is safe with the dazzling young woman. They are about to find themselves subject to a much larger danger, with the elites of late-nineteenth century Venetian society at the center of it all.

Margaret DeRosia joins the ranks of other academics who have pivoted to writing queer historical fiction (Sarah Waters, Jordy Rosenberg, Beatrice Hitchman, Emma Donoghue). Like those authors, she writes queerness into an archive full of silences, gaps, and erasures. It’s no small task to find traces of the queer lives that were subject to secrecy and censure. And it’s an equally delicate undertaking to represent those lives authentically within their historical contexts. DeRosia writes about this in her afterword: she deliberately maintained ambiguity around Franco’s identity. It’s clear that Franco isn’t simply presenting as male to get ahead, but it’s less clear if his identity is more analogous to what we would understand as a butch lesbian or a trans man. It’s a smart choice handled sensitively, a way of underlining that queer identities are historically contingent and that many people exist inside of these ambiguities. And, at times, these ambiguities are playful, even joyful, and in these moments the novel provides an antidote to the stories about queer pain, isolation, and trauma.

The book’s weak spot is an overreliance on telling rather than showing. With short chapters, it’s fast-paced, and the narrative doesn’t always have time to breathe. Rather than allowing readers the chance to explore, the novel provides dense blocks of information delivered in expository dialogue. It is the story of Franco and Annella which anchors the book emotionally amidst the unfolding intrigue. And though some of the emotional arcs tip into the category of melodrama, it is, after all, a story about the theater – and about storytelling. Franco and his coworkers hotly debate how to tell stories: how to rearrange source material into a compelling puppet show, how to court high-paying audiences while keeping the performances accessible to the working class. And who has access to what parts of the story guides the narrative, as Franco fears encountering people who know too much about his life while also seeking the truth about Annella’s wealthy benefactor. The novel is both a commentary on storytelling and an act of reparative storytelling, bringing into focus stories that exist in the margins of the historical record, if at all. Though its pacing might falter, the larger imaginative project of writing queer people into artistic and social histories is a feat worth celebrating.

About the Author

Margaret DeRosia is a writer, editor, and historian originally from Michigan. She has taught film, literature, and digital media at the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, Sonoma State University, the California College of the Arts, and Western University. Eight Strings is her debut novel. She currently resides in Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Simon & Schuster (March 14 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 352 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1982174072
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1982174071
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