When she talked to the Reader in July, T. Greenwood remained tight-lipped on details about her newest novel, Bodies of Water, saying nothing more than that it was “sort of a taboo love story.” The book itself, on the other hand, makes no pretense at hiding its subject matter. The hints begin by page five, and it’s obvious that there’s some connection between Billie Valentine, the book’s narrator and chief protagonist, and Eva Wilson. The love story that plays out between the two women--at times tragic, at times beautiful--is rightly taboo for the early-60’s setting.
“When I first heard this story, I was overwhelmed,” Greenwood says.
“It’s just such a beautiful, tragic love story, and it just happens to be about two women, which is not your typical romance, but it was riveting because it was so gut-wrenching and so heart-breaking.”
Add to that the undeniable relevance of Billie and Eva’s story as it echoes twenty-first-century political sentiments. In the era of Macklemore’s “Same Love,” when popular rap music champions marriage equality via top 40 radio, a sort of contemporary Romeo and Juliet happening between two women makes sense for 2103.
“This story is timely,” Greenwood says. “This is something that’s on people’s minds, and I think that heightens the sense of tragedy about these women’s experience.
“But I also think that this is a timeless love story. When all is said and done, it’s about two people who fall in love and then can’t be together, whatever the reasons behind that. Despite being historical fiction, it’s still very topical. I didn’t set out to write the story because things like marriage equality are prevalent in today’s political landscape. It just happened that way.”
That’s a very salient point, and one which people need to take to heart when reading Bodies of Water. At no point does the novel rely on the subject matter to buy credibility. As a love story, Billie and Eva’s saga is analogous to so many tales of shattered love, straight or gay. More than anything, it’s the desperate act of keeping secrets, which are notoriously dangerous, that tears the two apart.
“I’m hoping this book shows the tragedy of what secrets can do--to families and to individuals,” Greenwood says.
Despite that, it might be hard for this novel to even exist in a different political climate than today’s, as Greenwood explains.
“Even ten years ago, [Bodies of Water] might have been pigeonholed as an LGBT book and relegated to a little pocket of literature. It probably makes a difference that I’m a straight writer, so I don’t face the same struggle that lots of gay writers do. Everything they write, especially if it’s gay subject matter, tends to get put into a box [of genre fiction]. It was my hope--and my publisher’s and editor’s hope--that my book could be a mainstream work that anybody out there who reads literary fiction would want to pick up.
“I like to think that it’s becoming more common to have gay characters in fiction and for that to not be what the book is about. Instead, it’s just an a trait that a character might have.”
Bodies of Water’s other narrative goal is sharply different from the story’s romantic problems. In a lot of ways, the novel examines the idea of memory and how it plays such a vital role in people’s understanding of their lives. Billie’s thoughts on memory frame the novel’s opening paragraph:
“...memory is the same as water. It permeates and saturates. It quenches and satiates. It can pull you up or hold you under; render you weightless or drown you. It is tangible, but elusive.”
Later in the book:
“Memory is like that sometimes, protecting us from the most painful things. But then the most beautiful things sometimes disappear as well. All of it is like water slipping through a sieve. There are pieces though, pretty shells, that are captured. They remain. I collect them.”
And still later:
“[Memory] is both more powerful and weaker than you’d think. It is a paradox.”
The lens of memory, untrustworthy as it can be, structures the entire book.
“I’m fascinated by memory,” says Greenwood. “As I get older, and my memory gets worse, I think it’s interesting how we devise the narratives in our lives, the stories that we tell, and the things that rise to the surface. They can be small things and they can be really big things. Another challenge of the book was that Billie’s 80 years old when the book opens. She’s looking back on a life that has had some happy times, and some tremendous regrets.”
Billie Valentine, throughout her 80 years, questions herself, as well as much of what she knows about the world. The only thing that’s constant in her sometimes-deceitful memory is the love she had for Eva Wilson.