Book Review: Awake Unto Me by Kathleen Knowles

Awake Unto Me by Kathleen Knowles

Book Review by Bud Gundy

Awake Unto Me is one of those novels that can introduce you to a whole new genre of fiction.  In my case, I have never read a lesbian love story and was thrilled with the opportunity to explore a new world of emotion and passion.

Kerry and Beth come from very different worlds in turn of the century San Francisco – Kerry from the rough and tumble dives of the world-famous Barbary Coast, and Beth from the sedate calm of San Francisco’s Mission District.

But they are headed on an inexorable path towards one another, and finally meet through a mutual friend and mentor, the honor-bound Dr. Addison.  The result is a deeply felt and thoroughly satisfying story of love and desire.  Any gay person will instantly recognize the fumbling uncertainty and ache of longing that entangles the two characters as they struggle to vocalize their feelings for one another.  Unsure and wary, they feel a growing sense of destiny as a couple, but are too shocked and frightened to share their emotions with each other.

Meanwhile, other characters nudge them together in unintentional ways.  A prim housewife, a bawdy Barbary Coast prostitute, an abusive preacher and even strangers in hotel rooms and on the dark and unsafe environs along Market Street push Kerry and Beth closer together.  However, the forbidden nature of their desire and their own confusion prolong the romantic denouement.  As readers, we share their frustration at the unnecessary but wholly understandable delays that even war and a trip across the ocean can’t hasten.

Along the way, Knowles rewards the reader in other ways, with vivid and compelling descriptions of life in Victorian San Francisco, a place that (much like the modern city) contained different levels of existence, of rigid class distinctions, differing and fluid versions of morality and frustrating gender barriers to career aspirations.  Not to mention the sheer fun of exploring the city that was San Francisco a century ago, in places you can still visit, and others that exist only in modern ruins.

I found myself charmed by the story of a quiet girl working in her parent’s store who befriends another girl who lives in a sprawling, brawling home of different ethnicity in equal measure to yet another tale of a girl coming of age under the lackluster but loving care of a drunken and roughhouse father.  Nuance shades the emotions, sometimes igniting scorn and anger but never without a touch of tenderness and admiration.

This is an ambitious story, but one that succeeds in drawing the portrait of an intense love by women who seem unaware of their own bravery and poise.  Perhaps that’s the essence of courage – to not just defy the odds, but plow on regardless and heedless, not unaware of the obstacles but in the end indifferent to the consequences when their emotions become overwhelming.

If I had one complaint, it would be that the vivid descriptions of a woman breaking into the world of haute cuisine in one of San Francisco’s finest hotels left room for much more exploration.  It left me wanting more, and more is precisely what I hope to get from Knowles in future novels.