Cybele, with Bluebonnets by Charles L Harness

The NESFA Press, 2002, 155 p.

How could I resist a novel with an illustration of the Periodic Table on its front cover? Still less “a book for chemists who might appreciate magical realism” as the publisher’s prefatory lines have it. It could have been designed for me.

Don’t let that put you off though; it’s also a very powerful and intricate novel exploring those eternal themes of love, sex and death – with a very unusual ghost.

Charles L Harness is one of my favourite SF writers of the last century but due to the fact that it’s quite rare I only bought this book recently. It was, then, a little disconcerting that in the first page we find narrator, Joe Barnes, mentally undressing his female Chemistry teacher Miss Wilson (Miss Cybele Wilson) down to nothing but stockings, garters and low-heeled shoes as she enters class. Adolescent male fantasy no doubt but a bit much for page one.

There is a plot strand relating to a cup said to be the Holy Grail (the “real” one was lost in the Atlantic in its evacuation from Europe during the Great War.) Joe takes a job modelling for artists and recognises, though the face is turned away, one of the pictures the tutor rotates on the studio’s walls as being a nude Cybele holding the cup. A mystery about the cup’s disappearance from the religious institution where it is held is resolved by Joe’s knowledge of the refractive index of borosilicate glass.

Cybele becomes the love of his life and a major influence on it, her characteristic scent of bluebonnets (the State Flower of Texas apparently) coming to him at significant turning points. She inspires him with a love of Chemistry and encourages his thirst for knowledge.  She is a strong character but her prognostications about the future invite suspicion from the school authorities. It is not until well after he has left school, however, that they get together and that not for long as she has cancer. Here Harness inserts Joe’s thoughts on his loss. “And life goes on. It goes, but it doesn’t go anywhere. We begin, and end, in the middle.” At this point there is still half the book to go with many more opportunities for Cybele to affect Joe’s progress through life.

Joe was growing up in the 1930s and there is a lot of incidental detail about life in small town US in those times. Cybele’s background was unconventional, her mother was a madam in a local house of ill repute whose activities are policed by arrangement of times to raid the premises. A fair amount of Chemistry adorns the pages but I’m sure the details will not faze the average reader.

All of this is interspersed with incidents of what can only be termed magical realism. Young Joe’s discovery of a millions of years old skimming stone which skips from the river into a cave where something spooks him as he goes to retrieve it, the panther which saves his brother from a snake, the voice which he hears warning him to run from a lab accident, the unusual circumstances surrounding his daughter’s birth.

Almost innocent at times, Cybele, with Bluebonnets is a wonderful book; insightful, humane, knowledgeable, rueful. Here is a human life in all its glory and pain.


Pedant’s corner:- “into the gaping white maw of the snake” (maws do not gape, they are stomachs,) clear is used as a synonym for colourless (it isn’t, clear means ‘see-through,’ which many coloured things are,) barring one, all chemical formulae in the text are rendered correctly – even the subscripts are correct – however bicarbonate is given as having the formula -HCO (bicarbonate – now known as hydrogencarbonate – is actually HCO3,) focussed (focused,) “Munch’s The Shriek” (usually known, at least nowadays, as The Scream,) miniscule (several times, minuscule,) “a unisex washroom” (in the 1930s I wondered? Apparently separate toilets only came into being in the US in the 1920s as a response to more women entering the workplace,) “a few less bullets” (a few fewer bullets,) spit (USianism for ‘spat’,) cartilege (cartilage.)

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