Boulder is the lesbian parenting novel you didn’t know you needed. But oh, you do. Even though no one dies in the end – not even the baby, unfortunately – this slim novella is more than worth the time it takes to read it.
Eva Baltasar’s unorthodox approach to the topic will be appreciated by a broad readership. Unorthodox? Perhaps it’s better to say: honest. The Catalan poet holds nothing back; that much her previous readers will know from her first novel, Permafrost. The sardonic, suicidal narrator in the previous book has been replaced by ‘Boulder,’ an equally plain-talking, brutally honest storyteller whose simple nomadic life as a cook on a freighter is up-ended when she falls in love with Samsa, a woman she meets at one of their ports-of-call.
She follows Samsa to Iceland, and Boulder (translated by Julia Sanchez) chronicles her gradual, meek submission to domesticity, home ownership, and children. Boulder’s conformity is skin-deep at best: she observes her slide into parenthood with horror, narrating this decline with an attitude of mortified disbelief shared only with the reader (and the occasional sympathetic ear of a local bartender). As the couple fills their new house with Ikea furniture in preparation for a child, their neighbourhood social status rises in direct proportion to Boulder’s declining sense of self-worth.
Boulder will be appreciated by those who have themselves resisted the slide into domesticity and parenthood; Baltasar lays bare with her incisive power of observation and blade-like prose the unpleasant realities of parenthood and the many flimsy excuses parents use to persuade themselves that it’s all worth it. And yet, all is not lost for the parents reading this, however much they might question their life choices by the final third of the book. Boulder doesn’t hate the baby, as it turns out, and yet her relationship with it is deliciously, queerly ambivalent.
As Boulder gathers momentum, the reader braces themselves for the inevitable confrontation between Boulder’s desire to regain the things she has lost – the fiery desire that initially tied her to Samsa, her self-sufficient autonomy – and her pent-up frustration at their exhausted, routine, penned-in two-parent suburban family life.
A delightfully and unabashedly queer novel, Boulder doesn’t entirely succeed at offering queer solutions to this dilemma. When the prospect of an affair arises, Boulder feels compelled to choose between staying or leaving, resuming her former life, or surrendering to suburban conformity. A truly queer denouement might have seen the protagonists pursue a third course – embracing parenthood while rejecting traditional hetero-cis-centric family roles. Creative alternatives ultimately elude the protagonists.
There is something patently un-queer about Boulder’s reduction of her options to a simple binary – stay or leave, conform to a heteronormative lesbian lifestyle, or reject it. I had hoped that a writer of Baltasar’s creative and heretical talents would have crafted an alternative course for her protagonist, one that did not cleave so closely to the reductionist simplicity of patriarchal and heteronormative family values.
Perhaps such a critique is too harsh; part of Boulder’s charm lies in the fact that she is (like the narrator in Permafrost) a scathingly witty, insouciant reactionary to the double standards she witnesses all around her. Boulder is an observation of life, not a formula for revolution. In this, Baltasar remains true to her roots as a poet, exposing the awkward silences of modern life and draping them in beautifully etched words that sting and soothe in equal measure.
What Boulder does succeed at is levelling a powerful, poetic denunciation against aimless conformity to heterocentric parenting roles. It isn’t parenthood per se that transforms the relationship between Boulder and Samsa; their efforts to conform to a respectable, two-parent lifestyle do this. This is evident through Boulder’s eventual quirky successes at bonding with her child; the child, she realizes, is not the enemy.
Nor is motherhood. The real enemy is the straight, ciscentric performativity in which other mothers engage, which our couple feels compelled to enact. Samsa is the leader, dragging a reluctant Boulder with her into parenthood. But Boulder’s resistance is silent, comprised of fiery, sarcastic thoughts shared only with the reader until the end when all her pent-up desire and frustration struggle to escape their cage. Like a spoken word performance, the narrative quickens in pace toward the end, and whether the conclusion proves satisfying will say as much about the reader as it does about the characters.
Baltasar’s style is not for everyone: dense, more akin to poetry than prose, she is nevertheless a storyteller whose unique voice and perspective are refreshing and a visceral delight to experience. I find her work best taken in small doses, paragraphs to be savoured for the simple beauty of their construction and their role in furthering the plot. As queer in style as it is in content, Boulder is a superb follow-up to Baltasar’s debut and will leave readers craving more of her exquisite storytelling.