Book review: Biography of X

Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X is one of the best books I’ve read recently. It features a widow investigating her wife, an avant-garde artist. Much of it is set in the 60s/70s New York art scene, with direct quotes from a number of real-life sources. The book also includes photographs which Lacey found in junk shops, repurposed for her story. Lacey even commissioned designers to make book jackets for the main character.

I love when novels mix reality and fiction. But Lacey does something incredibly strange. She sets the book in an alternate timeline where America fragmented after World War Two. One section is a dystopian theocracy, with the book set in a very liberal section of the country. Lacey used this change to allow her to write about the relationship she was interested in:

I didn’t want to get into the heterosexual dynamics of a man writing about a woman or a woman writing about a man; it had to be two women. At the same time, I wanted the novel to be set in the mid-20th century but I wasn’t interested in writing about the actual struggles a prominent lesbian couple would have gone through in that time. So my alternate history grew out of that problem. I thought, if I have an America where this female artist could exist and this couple could exist without having to justify themselves, I just need a totally different America.

I thought this level of ambition was incredible, with Lacey changing an entire world to produce a setting for the characters she wanted to write about. The result is strange and beautiful. Reading it, I longed for more novels like this one.

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