MATADORA by Elizabeth Ruth (Cormorant), 327 pages, $21.95 paper. Ruth launches Matadora at the Gladstone with an onstage interview, music and more on Wednesday (April 10) See listings. Rating: NNNN
Amazing how changing politics can transform our perceptions of a heroic figure. That's one of the key themes of Elizabeth Ruth's brave novel about a woman determined to become a matador in 1920s Spain.
Set against the backdrop of the tensions between republican and fascist forces, Ruth's story tracks the obsession of the orphan Luna, who works in the household of a famous bull farm but yearns to get inside the ring, even though women bullfighters are strictly taboo.
She finds support among her master's sons, the socialist poet Manuel and his profit-seeking brother Pedro, who take her to Mexico to train - women can fight bulls there as long as they remain on horseback. Eventually she returns home to try to prove her matador mettle.
Writing in clear, colourful prose, Ruth has a firm grip on the story of her passionate pioneer. Particularly fascinating is the way feminist politics jut up against Spanish radicalism and traditionalism. It's a lose-lose situation for Luna no matter which way she turns.
She's outraged by the traditionalists who say no to women in the ring but can't make their minds up as to why. Some say women are too weak to fight; others say fighting will make them too strong. And the radicals aren't supportive either. While conservatives can't tolerate female bullfighters, leftists won't tolerate bullfighting period. It's a bloodthirsty, brutal ritual, they say, and begin protesting outside the arenas just as Luna is set to realize her dream.
Along the way, Ruth suggests that groundbreakers like Luna risk everything in pursuit of their goals - personal security, friendship and love - and that obsession can prevent the biggest heroes from realizing their human potential even when they achieve their goals.
Another smart, lesbian-tinged story from a local author who grows with every release.