Tourist in Bohemia a novel by Elizabeth McKellar

Readers’ comments:
pacy, racy and really engaging...
very funny but sad too...
original... a straight woman observes the gay scene... the fag-hag’s tale told with sharp-eyed sympathy

The story

The novel is set in the 1980’s London gay scene — this is the Bohemia of the title — beginning the day Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister and ending on the day of her downfall.

Eleanor, an unconfident young dressmaker from a northern town, comes to lodge with Grenville, a wealthy, gay toff.

At the heart of the book is Grenville and Eleanor’s friendship. Grenville is a vivid and articulate character; a radical, an intellectual, an idealist and a shameless and promiscuous fetishist. Eleanor is a straight woman looking for work, economic independence and an escape from a materialistic, upwardly mobile family where she feels bullied and a misfit.

They live in Grenville’s house which is in a once-grand, now very run down but lively area of London. He is having the ballroom of his house restored. The ballroom provides a setting for their relationship, the dinners, the parties, the excesses, the encounters and the endless flow of Grenville’s friends, acquaintances, celebrities, gatecrashers and one night stands.

Eleanor is fascinated by the people she meets, many of them, like her, having been rescued or enabled in some way by Grenville. Yasmine is an older woman, an immigrant, a lesbian and close friend of Grenville’s. She runs a theatre costume workshop where Eleanor gets her first job. Marty is a transvestite — in his other life he is a school teacher who lives with and cares for his working-class socialist father, disabled in an industrial accident. Tinker is a teenage rent boy. He and Eleanor have a bond in their gratitude to Grenville. She also meets Theo who as Grenville’s architect is supervising the restoration of the ballroom. He is a straight, prosperous Thatcherite who becomes a property developer.

Eleanor’s career taking off coincides with the AIDS crisis and the homophobia and panic it unleashes. Subsequent events lead to an excruciating conflict of loyalties for her.

The choices Eleanor makes mature her and bring to an end her life as a ‘tourist’. Despite the pain and losses, her friendship with Grenville and her time in the freedom of Bohemia have brought an understanding of herself and the confidence to claim her place in the world.