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Rachel Dawson’s joyously queer debut novel on community sparks hope

Rachel Dawson’s debut novel fizzes with delightfully queer potential. The author takes us back to 1984 in a valley in south Wales, where politics is at the forefront of Eluned Hughes’ world. Working behind a shop counter, she’s itching to kickstart the next chapter of her life.

Rachel Dawsons queer debut novel
Neon Roses is published by John Murray Press.

But the miners’ strike rallies on, with picket lines harassed by Thatcherite cops like the man her sister Mabli has inconveniently taken a liking to. As Eluned quells her own boyfriend Lloyd’s insistence on marriage, she and her sister sit at a crossroads signposting opposing political directions. 

Eluned is struggling to feel the momentum of her life take hold, until leather-jacket-clad activist, squatter and artist, June, appears on the scene. The fundraising group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners is visiting from London to raise money for the miners amid political tensions. Eluned is eager to join the cause, for more reasons than one.

Everything Eluned knows about herself becomes displaced, as she turns focus from becoming a reluctant stay-at-home wife to an unflinching activist. Not knowing where the pieces may land is exactly what entices her, towards politics, towards London, towards June. But, if she dares leap, would she look back?

The need for a new voice

In this exciting coming-of-age novel, Dawson takes a political moment in both national and queer history and tells it through a new voice. With influence from other historic references such as the BAFTA-nominated film Pride (2014), Dawson sets it to an eclectic playlist of cultural gems, 1980s ephemera and cultural memory. 

Dawson, originally from Swansea and residing in Cardiff, draws inspiration from the little-known history of the strike and the unlikely partnership formed between the LGBTQ+ community and the miners, delving into the political and social context of the era and illuminating the untold lesbian romance that might have existed in this time, but has hitherto remained untold.

Along the way, the author fills in the gaps of personal histories through an unabashedly lesbian perspective. She amplifies euphoric and resilient queer joy while simultaneously depicting stark, consequential realities of politics and its impacts on underrepresented communities in a balancing act to create a humanising, cathartic experience. Dawson’s use of humour and upbeat dialogue helps to inject life and rhythm to the narrative arc and her characters, much like the soundtrack it’s set to. 

A new kind of coming-of-age novel

The story takes its readers from the Valleys to the nightclubs of Cardiff, to queer London and up to Manchester, as these characters’ stories are constellated with the joyful likes of Prince, Madonna and Grace Jones. Eluned Hughes’ elation for music breathes life into her defiant strength as a character who dreams of living a life she’s carved out for herself: “They sit through ‘Slave to the Rhythm,’ a long remix that sends only the bassline and occasional French horn to the bottom of the garden. The back of her brain is always ticking over, working out what’s playing….” 

Many young queer people, whether they have come out or not, have always looked up to stories about leaving their homes and exploring new avenues and cities. Throughout the 20th century, coming-of-age stories and bildungsromans featuring queer characters struggled to find their place in literature due to book bans, censorship, and gatekeeping. Others retold history from the modern day, like the neo-Victorian novels of Sarah Waters, which offer a new lesbian perspective on traditional narratives.

A story of self-discovery

In Neon Roses (2023) Rachel Dawson knits together rich cultural history, geography and the personal mythologies and queer kinship of its characters that interlink it all. Each destination contains one’s own mythologies to be experienced and traversed by protagonists calling to be identified with. 

Dawson’s Neon Roses presents a debut queer novel of multiple intersections that undig the joys of queer sex, relationships and self discovery from a time where events have mostly been recounted by men. So many narratives still remain untold and are waiting to be discovered, particularly those from underrepresented communities who have yet to see their stories represented accurately and extensively in mainstream media. Recent trends have even seen LGBTQ+ TV shows and films getting axed, reducing the availability and access that represent a rich and diverse history of queerness through time.

Seeking identity and community

Dawson’s writing is triangulated into references of the past, the present and a hopeful future, highlighting how each informs our perspective of the other, underpinned by the impact of consequence. There is the presence of labour, of tangibility, reflecting its socialist bedrock. The immediate presence of metal in both texture, small and sight, of corrugated steel and fingers smelling of metal, “her grey-stained hands. They stink of metal,” Dawson writes. 

Eluned also grasps at memories of the past stooped in nature, “the smell of the damp, the sensation of silky moss on her back”. Dawson takes moments to serenade the richness of the Welsh landscapes her protagonist calls home: “On the weekends she passes the time walking north to the sprawling, ivy-covered graveyard, or south to the Docks where a white church sits at the edge of the mudflats like it’s just been washed up.”

A rugged landscape that has seen almost 200 years of industry, intersected by Roman roads, is what shapes Eluned’s notion of home. There is a palpable sense of national identity in this: “‘The space below them has filled with that peculiar Valleys phenomenon, dragon’s breath. Thick grey wisps sneak up behind the bus, curling into the space between the steep sides of the hills.’

This strong sense of national identity is celebrated in Welsh colloquialisms peppered instinctively throughout the dialogue, creating energetic and real-feeling characters, whose language is free and dynamic.

Time for unabashedly queer characters

It would be too easy to reduce such a story to labels, but for the sake of crystallising its power, this novel centres the voice of a fresh voice: a Welsh socialist lesbian. Dawson’s protagonist speaks her mind and does not shy away from utilising blunt, enjoyably filthy language to depict sex or the body; euphemism has no role. 

Neon Roses sheds light on police brutality, politics, queer identity and finding community, as well as sisterhood, while also celebrating a woman’s journey into queer love and activism. When so many queer narratives, in literature, film and the stage, have historically ended in tragic circumstances, this rich and exciting coming-of-age novel is a celebration of lesbian culture and history to its core. As the LGBTQ+ community continues to be vilified in places around the world, the protection and amplification of queer and trans narratives, and continuing to share the enriching and joyous stories of a resilient community, continues to be of upmost importance.

Neon Roses is Rachel Dawson’s debut novel first published by John Murray Press in 2023. The paperback is due to be published on 1st February 2024. Pre-order on Gay’s The Word here.

Love Team Nonchalant xx

Lauren Hurrell
Lauren Hurrell

Lauren is a writer and editor based in Peckham, covering all things queer culture, books, travel, arts and lifestyle, fashion and creativity. She is also a features editor at New Statesman Media Group, writing on sustainability, cities and tech. She most recently had a chapter on Reykjavik published in an LGBTQ+ travel book published by Rough Guides.

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