Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling
Having thoroughly enjoyed Caitlin Starling’s 2019 novel The Luminous Dead, I was very happy to learn that I wouldn’t have to wait long to read more of her work.
Yellow Jessamine (2020), Starling’s new novella, is completely different from The Luminous Dead but similarly features creepy atmosphere, a background of family trauma, and relationships filled with dysfunctional tension and longing.
Evelyn Perdanu is a wealthy woman in the city of Delphinium, a city that is slowly dying now that its surrounding empire has fallen to a coup. Evelyn is involved in shipping, and is also an herbalist specializing in “fixes to unfixable problems.” The story begins when one of her ships brings home a strange illness, and on the same night, she finds an equally mysterious man lying by the road near her house, injured and near death.
I’m largely going to echo what Kelly said about Yellow Jessamine (2020). Our protagonist is extremely paranoid of everything and everyone around her (with one notable exception) and yet her actions didn’t feel reasonable to me. I think what Starling was trying to achieve with the main character was interesting, and there are some stand-out scenes and passages; but overall, I found the protagonist’s choices more bizarre than coming from a flawed-yet-logical place.
I also found the supernatural aspect of the story muddy, which in turn made the climax less climactic. The novella does a lot of meticulous setting up in the first half, but I don’t think the payoff matched the setup. However, I do agree with Kelly that maybe it would have made more sense as a novel — all that atmosphere and setting with more space to breathe and explore the characters could have made this story more engaging, and the many threads coming together more of a payoff.
There is a certain beauty to the slow pace, but there wasn’t quite enough umph in the ratcheting tension to pull it off. I found the final handful of pages very interesting, though.
~ Skye Walker
Caitlin Starling’s 2020 novella Yellow Jessamine is a success of interiority, as we follow the tightening noose of circumstances menacing Evelyn Perdanu, in a fantastical city in an alien world. Evelyn, who dresses in black and veils herself like a widow even though she never married, is a shipping magnate in the city of Delphinium, a city now surrounded by a military cordon during a civil war. Evelyn and her handful of colleagues are the few wealthy left. Now, Evelyn has become the target of a disease or a drug. If one of Evelyn’ ships brought the new contagion, the struggling city will turn on her. More frightening, the infected seek out Evelyn and act as if they know her personally. Retreating to her mansion and her greenhouse garden, Evelyn is forced to examine her life.
As the strange disease or drugging spreads, (with one simple, terrifying symptom visible) Starling gracefully excavates layer after layer of Evelyn’s guilt and shame, until the final germ of her behavior is revealed close to the end of the story.
Starling’s descriptions are exquisite. I’d call it “imagery,” but Starling touches each of the senses. The twin sources of Evelyn’s influence—her legitimate power as the head of a shipping company and her secret power based on the “cures” she has dispensed to the women of the city—converge in the story. Much of Evelyn’s garden contains healing plants, but it is a poison garden; Evelyn has healed many, but she is a poisoner.
I walked every step of the claustrophobic labyrinth of Evelyn’s psyche, eager to know exactly what lay around the next corner. The prose is dark, dreamlike and lush. Where the story broke down for me was the intersection of Evelyn’s internal life with the actual world. At the end of Yellow Jessamine, the city of Delphinium itself is at risk, forcing Evelyn to decide if she will take the necessary steps to atone. The choice she makes has an impact on the city as well. Since I never fully understood the political background or the risks, this secondary result never resonated for me. The city is blockaded in some way, but the harbor is left open; a rebel navy appears in the harbor at the end but I didn’t understand how liberating one city (if in fact they do liberate Delphinium) leads to the collapse of the Empire. This is far from the important part of the story, but because it blends with Evelyn’s psychic journey, I felt distracted and confused by these questions.
I still sank right into this book, absorbed into Evelyn’s bitterness, strategy, fear and longing for connection. I didn’t love the character, but exquisite language made this a dark, disturbing treat.
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
Thanks for the reviews you two. I put the book on my TBR as soon as I saw ads for…
We seem to be on the same page. Yeah, the depiction of some (at least two) of the women characters…
The correct and more accurate term for the book thing is "challenged," I think. Frankly, the intentional removal of books…
Not sure I can be persuaded on two of these articles. When I was young book-banning meant you couldn't sell…