What I’m Reading Now (Peninsula of Lies)

Another in the series and another that I read while the hand was in recovery.

Edward Ball once again has created a masterwork with Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love. This time he writes at the intersection of sex, race, and identity — gender and national.

Most readers know Ball for his award-winning Slaves in the Family, in which he tells the story of his relatives, black and white. There he blew up his father’s admonition: “There are five things we don’t talk about in the Ball family …  Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes.” Peninsula of Lies crosses all those boundaries and wades deep into the river of transsexuality.

The peninsula of the title is the city of  Charleston, South Carolina. Gordon Langley Hall lands there in the 1960s from Britain via New York where he has befriended the heiress Isabel Whitney. Gordon proceeds to charm then scandalize the city that in many ways was still living in the nineteenth century. He fills an ante-bellum house with antiques and participates in the round of dinners — second tier because he wasn’t a native.

Then he goes to a Baltimore hospital and comes home as Dawn. She marries John-Paul Simmons, an African American mechanic. White Charleston turns its collective back, and Dawn embraces the black church. The glamorous house becomes overrun with animals and devolved into squalor. Dawn begins wearing maternity clothes and and soon appears with an infant in arms. At some point the money runs out, and she moves from Charleston to upstate New York – and back. And so forth.

This yarn is pure Southern Gothic – William Faulkner couldn’t have written better – except it’s all true, documented by Ball in minute detail. In some ways it evokes Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.   Ball’s writing somersaults over John Berendt’s in style and narrative drive. Plus, the Lady Chabils is a staid matron compared to Dawn, who can even claim an English castle in her past, though not quite in the way she tells the story.

Some of the statistical bits detract from the pacing. Worse, Ball shows his roots by saying that Eli Whitney was responsible for “textiles.” More like responsible for chaining generations of Americans to a cruel and degrading way of life for generations.

Peninsula of Lies came out in 2005. Why hasn’t anyone made a film of it?

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