Friday, November 30, 2012

The Blondes

As far as I can remember, I've never dyed my hair. It's possible I used one of the 12-wash dyes in the summer once, but I have no real memory of doing so. This is less a style thing than a laziness thing, since once you start dyeing your hair you kind of have to keep going, and because I'm one of those people who only gets two or three haircuts a year, it just wouldn't work out. How is any of this relevant to a book blog? Well, after reading Emily Schultz's novel The Blondes, I haven't been able to stop thinking about hair colour and natural vs. synthetic colours, and it has made me think more deeply than I would have thought possible about my own dyeing choices.

Off the top, I should say this isn't a non-fiction book about the history of hair colour or anything like that. It's a novel, and although it has various plot lines, the one relating to the title is that of an epidemic affecting only girls and women with blonde hair – either dyed or natural. This "disease" – dubbed Blonde Fury because it drives these blonde women to attack others – spreads like wildfire around the world, forcing airports into lockdown and governments into creating "containment areas." The pandemic, though, is only half of the story, which is narrated by Hazel Hayes, who has just discovered she's pregnant.

Hazel, a natural redhead who dyes her hair brown, is doing her PhD in cultural studies at the University of Toronto. The novel starts with Hazel alone in an isolated cabine telling her unborn child – "You: strange seven pounds of other" – the story of the last seven months. The cottage belongs to Hazel's thesis advisor (also the father of her child) and his wife Grace, who has recently vacated the premises for unknown reasons. So Hazel is alone, and in an effort to keep herself occupied and not panic, she starts explaining things to the baby. She was in New York, on a research grant, when she found out she was pregnant. A few days later, she was in a subway station when she witnessed a blonde woman attack a 17-year-old girl, throwing her onto the subway tracks and then jumping down after her. The Blonde Fury wasn't a thing yet, so it was viewed as a bizarre and unsettlingly random act of violence. Then more attacks started to crop up, and soon women with blonde or light-coloured hair were encouraged to either dye it dark or shave it off. Hospitals and clinics were in chaos, and when Hazel tried to go to a women's clinic to have an abortion, she found it closed – there had been an attack, and it was too risky to reopen.

Hazel is a little neurotic, and with nothing to do in the cottage but think and talk to herself, she covers a lot of ground: her affair with Karl Mann, her married thesis advisor; her relationship with her mother, a hairdresser in Windsor, On.; her desire not to be pregnant; the awkwardness of sharing a one-room cottage with her lover's wife; her detention in a Canadian "containment" facility for women at risk for the disease (red hair is borderline); various theories about the genesis of the blonde pandemic; and more. Her voice is so real, and the craziness of her story so compelling and believable, that it is almost impossible not to imagine yourself in her place. 

 The Blondes came out in the summer, and it would have been a great vacation read. As it was, I read it recently, when the outside weather almost matched the dark, cold winter of the novel's present. As an added bonus, I had the flu, which matched up frighteningly closely to the symptoms of the Blonde Fury (I was not filled with rage, though, so I think I'm safe). Although it might sound dark and/or overly serious, The Blondes is a really fun, fast-paced read that covers a lot of ground about culture, public policy, government reactions, and various kinds of fear. It's the perfect mix of thoughtful depth and pulpy fun, and I loved it.

The Blondes
by Emily Schultz
first published in 2012 (cover image from DoubleDay Canada edition)

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