Long Black Veil by Jennifer Boylan

Feels like: Opening up a cheesy Hardy Boys book at the library and finding a heartfelt Post Secret postcard.

Song pairing: “Mirror” by The Drums

🖤“There was a sadness to her, but then, you don’t get to be a fifty-seven-year-old woman without bearing some sorrow. Really, if there wasn’t any melancholy in your heart by this point, you simply weren’t paying attention.”🖤

There’s no way to review this book without a heavy spoiler alert, so. Hey. You’re about to be spoiled.

Permit me a meandering comparison of Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan to the 2016 film Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals, starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, was advertised as a thriller, as little as it was marketed at all. In actuality, the movie is a story within a story—a neo noir film of intrigue, about deception, failure, rejection, emotional manipulation, and the death of our inner sanctuary. These themes make for an amazing, impacting movie filled with depth, emotion, and stunning visuals—really, if you haven’t seen this art film, see this art film. You won’t be disappointed. That is, you won’t be disappointed if you bought a ticket to a thriller and instead got an art film and you coincidentally love art films so it’s okay. (My mother hated it with a passion but she also hated the movie adaptation of Gone Girl, so she can’t be trusted.)

That’s the comparison I’m attempting lazily to draw. Long Black Veil was marketed by its own book jacket to be a thriller, but it’s just not. Loose plot synopsis: six college students and a German professor, whose presence is only a nonsensical plot device, have a post-wedding celebratory stroll through an abandoned and presumed to be haunted prison. One student never leaves. Twenty years later, a body is discovered, and secrets emerge along with a skull. Sounds thrilling, right? Like all my favorite 1980’s ghostly horror movies.

And ghosts are on the menu, but of the “skeletons in your closet” variety. The murder portion of the novel is a very thin veil (ding) hiding the true heft of the novel—a trans woman deals with her life choices and the death of what she left behind after she embraced her new form. Judith’s ghosts come back to haunt her when her former friend’s skull is discovered in that abandoned prison, and the college friends finally reunite after twenty years to uncover what really happened.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is an amazing author. Her writing is personal, probing, and constantly earnest. At first I was a little put off by her strategy—I was really in the mood for a thriller, and the build-up was appetizing. But instead of frilly cake, I got something heartier. I got a book that I honestly wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. Though I’m an ally, I haven’t yet intentionally picked up a book that served as a character study for a trans woman. It’s a type of story that should be read by everyone, but too often gets put on a waiting list by those who aren’t trans because they “can’t really relate to what the character’s going through, and I’ll read it later. No harm done.”

Yes, harm done. Just saying “I’m an ally for the cause, I believe trans people deserve every right that I have, give these human beings health care and stop treating them like a statistic” is not enough. Being an ally but not putting yourself in the shoes of someone who is struggling with their identity is not enough. So good on you, Jennifer Boylan, for persuading so many readers to pick up a typical thriller novel but walk away with an experience they wouldn’t ordinarily have, and one that is written so aptly and fiercely by a woman who has been there.

This novel serves as a vessel to confront the responsibility we have to devise our own happiness. It’s lovely that Rachel, one of the only memorable main characters aside from Judith, is a former artist turned teacher who spends her life surrounded in aesthetics. We get to muse through her about the potentiality of a face, of the physical form, of our personal ruminations on gender, of our associations with beauty. There is a harsh correlation between Rachel’s mediocre life, full of disappointment and regret, and Judith’s life, built up from ashes into warmth and personal satisfaction. Denying your true self, fearing to embrace your real desires, leads only to missed opportunities at actual happiness.

Don’t get me wrong–I wasn’t a fan of the frame story at all. The characters are hollow and dull, the situations they’re put into are my least favorite–the kind propelled forward by mistaken identity and random acts of hired violence. I wouldn’t dream of reading this novel for its plot. I would, however, recommend it highly for Judith, and I hope that’s the case for most readers.

Memorable quotes: 

👥“Enough already. I’m sorry, but I have to ask; What is wrong with you people? Does every human soul really require an explanation before she can be deemed worthy of human kindness? Does compassion for one’s fellow humans really demand a test first?”👥

🙌🏻“It makes me wonder just how many supposedly brave people in the world are just men and women trying to imitate someone more courageous than themselves.”🙌🏻

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