By Janet Fox
Available now from Speak (Penguin)
Read my review of FAITHFUL and my interview with Janet
SIRENS takes us back to 1925, during Prohibition and just five years after women got the vote. The alternating narrators, Jo and Lou, are rather concerned with both of those policies. Lou is the moll of powerful mobster Danny Connor and Jo's father is involved with smuggling moonshine. Their social lives often involve going to speakeasies and risking getting caught in a raid. And as women they're caught between old ideas of femininity and modern. They may have the vote, but they still feel controlled by the men in their lives.
They meet in Manhattan after Jo's father sends her to live with her aunt and uncle's family. Turns out Danny is after something her brother left behind - something she probably has in her possession. Lou feels threatened by Jo, a young, smart, ambitious girl who is perfect to take her place as Danny's girlfriend. The conflict in the way they view events is highlighted by the way Janet Fox structures SIRENS.
Lou and Jo tell alternating chapters, but Jo tells events as they happen and Lou is recounting events for the cops. At first I found this very distracting. But it works, because Lou is reflecting on the choices she made while Jo is growing up and becoming an independent woman. The technique does work much better in later chapters, where there's more overlap between the girls' narratives.
At times it was difficult for me to read SIRENS because of real-world events. Fox brings the Manhattan of the twenties to live, complete with the treasured Algonquin Round Table. While she doesn't stint on the dark side of life - there are gang-related deaths, a loss of bodily autonomy, and other terrible things - this is a glittering, fabled New York. It was tough to read about that town of possibilities while it was being pounded by Hurricane Sandy.
But I still enjoyed SIRENS. It's got adventure and mystery and many of the ethical questions it explores are still relevant today. Winning the vote didn't automatically give women equal rights to men. It didn't automatically give us rights to our own bodies. I don't want to paint SIRENS as all about politics, however. It's got romance, and sibling relationships, and hopes for a better future. It's one jazzy ride.