Author John Miller has incorporated his experiences working in hospice care, with street youth, with people affected by HIV, and with social work policy, into a focused, sensitive novel portraying the relationship between two friends – both sex workers and addicts – working and living together on the streets of Toronto in the mid-2000s.
According to Miller, (A Sharp Intake of Breath, Dundurn Press, 2007), his latest novel grew from interviews with a woman named Kim, a friend from his time working with marginalized populations in Toronto. One gets the sense of Miller wanting to get it right, to honour Kim (who passed away before the novel was published) while grappling with, in Miller's words, the "moral residue" of using her experiences as a sex worker and addict for his own art. I was, as he may have suspected some readers would be, a bit skeptical – he is after all, a male author, writing about the sex trade, partly from the perspective of a woman of colour. But we are not in William T. Vollman or Chester Brown territory here. Miller is committed to the female perspective, and he does the subject matter, and his characters, justice.
It's simply a beautiful book, well-researched, and written with care and sensitivity. Wild and Beautiful is the Night joins a long list of recent novels that aim to humanize, rather than sensationalize, the world of sex work, including Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin (Harcourt, 2002), Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet (Freight, 2015), Katherine Faw’s Ultraluminous (MCD, 2017), and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (Scribner, 2018).
What permeates the narrative, as the two friends struggle to meet their immediate needs, is the sense of women looking after one another. While the men are there, they are an afterthought – the violence of the johns and uselessness of the absent fathers are not the point. The women rely on each other, on neighbours, colleagues, dealers, and sponsors, and on their own determination. They rely on the community services available to them – the needle exchanges and Maggie's and the abortion clinics and disability payments and food banks. Miller gets women right, mostly, although I wondered about privileged Danni-from-Forest-Hill’s inability to apply her own make-up (the results are “horrendous and clown-like.”)
When things go wrong, the women acknowledge their own failures, their bad choices – Miller is careful to show these women with agency – but it’s also systemic, of course. They don't have the resources to fight the social workers, the courts, the decision makers. “Rosalie helped me to sort through it all, to distinguish between the chunks that had fallen off me, that were mine to own and make amends for, and the mess of cracked concrete and girders that were part of a substructure stacked against people of colour and immigrants,” notes Paulette. “Against lesbians and women in general. A foundation whose unsteadiness I couldn’t be held responsible for.”
But they do have power, Miller demonstrates. Paulette and Olive participate in protests advocating for the rights of sex workers. The transients of a tent city advocate for housing rights. Danni is able to see herself and her situation through a feminist lens, thanks to her women’s studies classes at Trent. After intervening in a brutal attack involving two strangers, Danni laments the status quo. “‘Fucking guys.’ She pointed. At darkness. ‘Always pinning us. Fucking assholes.’” And yet women are complicit, too. A female police officer comforts Paulette in the moments before her child is taken away: “‘It’s going to be okay,’ she lied.”
People working in the sex industry face an extraordinary risk of violence on the job. According to advocacy group POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa / Gatineau Work Educate and Resist), 78 percent of street-level sex workers have experienced a physical assault during their careers. We see Danni learning basic safety strategies – leaving a car door open, noting a strange john’s license plate, etc. A reader can’t help but think of the disappeared women from Vancouver’s Lower East Side, murdered by Canada’s most prolific serial killer. Women whose disappearances were largely dismissed by the authorities, whose families and friends and caregivers frantically searched for them after they vanished, only to be told by police they'd likely run away, were on a bender, had hitchhiked somewhere else – to Winnipeg or Calgary. Loved ones were asked to believe that these women would voluntarily vanish from the community. Miller’s skillful illumination of the daily lives of these women is to know how appalling that official narrative was. In Miller’s work the reader knows, and the characters know, the possibility of a violent outcome is always there.
Thankfully, Miller resists moralizing, lessons learned, and neat endings. Families are not reunited. There are no resolutions – Paulette doesn't show up at her ailing mother's door, asking forgiveness or demanding apologies. Her children are not returned to her. Addiction is ongoing, a daily challenge. Things are left broken and unresolved, a show of restraint in our digital age that often feels devoid of nuance and ambiguity.
Ultimately, though, this is a book about a complicated friendship between two loving, funny, women from very different backgrounds. As a street-wise Paulette observes slyly while the two work their corner one cold Toronto night, “Danni claimed to be a true Canadian who loved winter, but she’d never had to love it this much.”
PS: A small quibble from a Hamiltonian writing for the Hamilton Review of Books. I’d have loved a bit more of the Hamilton of Paulette's childhood. Toronto is so fully realized, yet the Hammer remains vague. Barton Street gets a mention, as does Ancaster and the City Centre Mall (at the time this would have been the Eaton's Centre, or probably just Jackson Square, although perhaps the reference is to the old Centre Mall). But ultimately Paulette’s Hamilton home is little more than a signpost – a signifier of her lower socio-economic status. Residents looking for a little taste of their hometown will be left disappointed. A small price to pay, however, for an otherwise lovely read.
Jennifer McCartney is the New York Times bestselling author of The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place and 8 other books. Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, she lives in Brooklyn, NY.