First published in 1991 and re-released in 2016, The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez is a vampire novel spanning 1850 to 2050 America. It centers on a woman escaping slavery and her journey in becoming a vampire for the next two hundred years while still trying to retain her sense of and connection to humanity.
The book has a distinct lack of background story for what Gilda, the main protagonist, has learned and is learning about what it means to be a vampire. Much of it is alluded to and is meant for the reader to intuit, perhaps allowing readers to fill in the blanks based on prior knowledge regarding vampire lore. However, this is such a different kind of vampire story that a little more exposition regarding this very important aspect would add a depth to the story that is needed.
Even so, much of the character development centers on Gilda as she moves through the ages. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the time periods are as much of a character as they are helpful in showing how she is being developed as a character. Each time period introduces and interweaves very time-appropriate characters to interact with already established characters. None are as important as Gilda and it is through them and the events of the time period that we can see how she matures in her reactions, relationships, and attitudes. However, this does mean we don’t get to see quite as much development with other characters, even ones that seem important to the plot and to Gilda. The Gilda Stories are just that: stories about her. Readers only see development of other characters through their interactions with her and therefore viewed through Gilda’s lens.
The writing style is engaging. Each chapter moves from one time period to a new time period. Who she is and how she moves in the world as a black woman is really well-done to the point of making the book hard to put down. It moves the story along fast enough that it never feels like it is being bogged down with boring parts or too much focus on one particular thing. The downside of this is that there are parts that seem too short and not delved into enough. It’s an interesting balance of wanting just enough in each era to not feel bogged down but wanting more of an era to be delved into.
Overall, the book was fantastic. I loved the intersection of Gilda’s identities: woman, black, lesbian, vampire. Each identity made her an outsider in certain circles but an insider in others. Her exploration into each identity as she aged, how it changed or was strengthened in some manner, was empowering. The relationships she forged and the deep connection she craves, even so far as creating a family that one is not born into, is something we each can understand. While it is a story about vampires, it is ultimately more so a story about how we need a strong support system to navigate the challenges of life, to fight for equality, and to be human. Each era has its own challenges, but that need for family and friendship and romance, however you define it, remains constant. This is definitely a book I would recommend to readers and non-readers of fantasy alike. 4 out of 5 stars.