By Wesley Stace
Little, Brown. 529 pp. $23.95
Wesley Stace is better known as the singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, who took his stage name from a Bob Dylan song about the Old West desperado (whose name was actually Hardin). On the 1998 Harding album "Awake," Stace wrote a retro English ballad about a different kind of 19th-century outlaw, "Miss Fortune," the strange tale of a male foundling who was adopted by the "richest man in the world" and brought up as a girl. It turned out to be one of those songs whose potential wasn't quite exhausted; Stace said in an interview that there was "unfinished business" about it.
Was there ever. In this debut novel, Stace uncorks a ripping transsexual romp set in Romantic-era England, and it reads like some inspired collaboration between Charles Dickens and Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar: full of orphans, decadence, flouncy skirts, greed, deception, amnesia, incest, murder, religious and social intolerance, ballads, books, letters, wild farce and all manner of meditation on sexual identity. It calls to mind another regal androgyne, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, though not as literary or as tiresome. This is a fun book. Rose Old, a.k.a. Miss Fortune, is just the kind of narrator an old-fashioned yarn needs: one who makes you suspend disbelief not just willingly but with great enthusiasm.
It begins in suitably absurd 19th-century fashion: A mother dies in childbirth on the dark side of town, and her presumably dead offspring is hauled off to the local dump. Fate intervenes -- as it does without fail over the next 500 pages -- and the babe falls into the hands of the Good Lord Geoffroy Loveall, of Love Hall, a highly fragile eccentric in desperate need of an heir.
Despite telltale evidence to the contrary, Lord Loveall -- who is in perpetual mourning for the sister he lost as a child -- is convinced his new adoptee is a girl, and his hangers-on are too concerned for his mental state to tell him otherwise. In hopes of keeping up appearances, the family quickly arranges a marriage between the lord and his former governess, Anonyma Wood, who has her own reasons for supporting the lord's illusions. A scholarly devotee of a mystical poet who believes that men and women were once united and had been split into different selves -- ideas that are basically a hash of Ovid's Metamorphoses and William Blake -- Anonyma sees the child as a test case for her idea that male and female are mere social roles. Rose grows up as "my mother's idea and my father's idée fixe."
Rose's "Ovidyssey" begins pleasantly enough, as he has the run of the castle, wears the finest dresses in all of England, and couldn't enjoy being a girl more if he were Sarah Jessica Parker. Of course, things change. Much as he loves dressing up like his friend Sarah, he yearns to play in the mud with her brother, Stephen.
Rose has always had suspicions about himself -- "I had spent my whole life trying to forget something I didn't even know," he says -- and the slow confirmation of his fears sends him spiraling into a maze of sexual confusion. This is only half the problem, as Rose's real identity touches off a domestic reversal of fortune between the Lovealls and their parasitic relations. Rose is faced with the dilemma of every cross-dresser in literary history: He hates having to be who he's not, but who is he?
It's not a question he answers with much depth. Rose never really probes his psyche in ways that go beyond the ordinary or the expected. You don't feel the same gradual electric surge of personal discovery that you do with Calliope Stephanides, the hermaphrodite hero of Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex. But Stace, who has a degree in English literature from Cambridge, has terrific powers of invention -- like Rose. He cooks up a good story and embroiders all the periodic details with great zest. There's even a touch of Shakespeare to the family's efforts to hold on to what they have, as scavenging relatives swoop in and gradually reduce them to nothing.
In great ballads such as "Duncan Gray" and "Dainty Davy," Robert Burns told stories that had the scope of a novel. Stace's novel began life as a ballad, and it retains the rich feel of one all the way through, thanks in no small part to his mischievous, sly, humane, sympathetic and captivating narrator. In his voice (her voice?), Stace finds his own.
Rodney Welch frequently reviews books for the Columbia, S.C., Free-Times.