A Review of Liz Strange’s The Embrace of Life and Death (MLR Press, 2011).
By Derek Newman-Stille
A lot of people who see a cover that features two half naked men would assume that a book does not have a lot of substance to it. However, after hearing Liz Strange speak at Can Con in Ottawa, I knew she had incredible insights and that I had to read The Embrace of Life and Death . The novel features a relationship between an angel and a vampire and that pairing itself evokes complications. The fact that both of the characters are male and that this is the vampire, Kieran’s first time being attracted to a man further complicates matters. The fact that his lover is the angel Azrael (the angel of death) means that there are a number of theological questions and considerations that are brought to the fore.
The Embrace of Life and Death is aptly titled, featuring a clash and synthesis of opposites: dark and light, cold and hot, damned and saved, reveling in pleasure and denying pleasure. A vampire and an angel make unusual partners, particularly when the other angels and their master The Supreme One have made Azrael an outsider for his love of the vampire. Her characters have a mutual interest and excitement of discovery about the encounter with the opposite, the foreign and strange to them.
Her novel represents a clash of duty and love, a complex relationship that evokes changes and challenges for both partners. Both experience conflicting feelings about the relationship as the past continues to haunt them and cause them to question the nature of their relationship and what it suggests about their identity. They have to sacrifice parts of their identity to be together, moving themselves out of the place of certainty about who they are so that they can form something new of themselves. Both characters experience moral struggles over their new relationship, and Liz Strange helps her reader to recognise that most things in this world exist in a place of moral ambiguity where good, quality questions can be asked, and that there is no such thing as a fixed, unchanging identity.
Both of the main characters Kieran and Azrael are highly masculine figures, deviating from the general feminisation of queer characters that tends to feature in representations of gay relationships. Both are strong, complex, and avoid stereotypes, making them rich queer characters. Liz Strange uses this text, and particularly the figure of an angel (a figure generally central to Christian belief) to question anti-queer agendas advocated by many groups who claim this to be part of their religion. She suggests that this bias is from human beings, not from the divine. She encourages her readers to question anything that states that questioning is forbidden.
The vampire in this work serves as a symbol of nostalgia and the past as a taboo place. Despite his age, Kieran is firmly a figure of the present, a modern creature. He is a creature of ‘the now’ forced to go into his own past and research his roots, to know himself fully before taking changes for the future. Azrael similarly has to seek his own memories and the restoration of his memory in order to understand himself and his place in the world. His memories have been taken away by his leader The Supreme One, and it is only through this restoration of his selfhood that he is able to enter into his relationship as a complete person, a whole person.
Liz Strange makes great use of metaphor and richness of description in her work, creating a powerful sensory experience that draws the reader in. She is an author who recognises that fear and longing are similar sensory experiences, playing with the reader’s senses and evoking a kick of adrenaline. It is a tough book to put down.
You can read more about Liz Strange’s work at her website: http://www.lizstrange.com/ .