Clytemnestra lives for the Gold Persimmon; the hotel “is a precisely ordered world full of musts and musn’ts,” and Cly is a strict adherent to its rituals and worships at the altar of its silence. She loves that guests are assigned individual check-in slots that prevent them from gathering to chat; loves the soundproofing that keeps the chaos of the outside world from intruding; loves the sense of identity being one with the hotel provides her. To Cly ,the Gold Persimmon is everything a person could want in terms of safety, protection, and absolute privacy. Yet, when a hotel guest persuades Cly to meet her at the end of her shift, Cly breaks the one irredeemable rule—no interaction with the guests outside your function as an extension of the hotel.
Newly minted college graduate Jaime finds herself following the prescribed path of aspiring writer with its stereotypical joys and obstacles—finding peace and escape in scribbling in notebooks while being harangued by an unsupportive parent to stick to the “correct” and acceptable path in both career choice and identity. Threatened with discontinuation of financial support, Jaime applies for a job at the Red Orchid hotel the same day an inexplicable fog engulfs NYC. What begins as a simple oddity that keeps Jaime, three guests, and three hotel employees from leaving the hotel becomes an increasingly bizarre and nightmarish game for control and dominance. Haunted and hunted in varying ways, Cly and Jaime stumble around their shifting realities as the walls they’ve built and rules they’ve clung to cease to exist; the cost of freedom potentially too high to pay.
The Gold Persimmon is billed as an experimental feminist horror novel dealing with several large and small themes that connect the two POV characters, Clytemnestra and Jaime, and is told in three parts with Jaime’s POV being bookended by Clytemnestra’s. Both POVs are told in first-person present tense, which gives the story a sense of presence and immediacy that works for it. The horror found in Part II is the most typical version as the longer the seven people are locked together in the hotel to avoid the ominous fog, the more their inner demons, desires, and weaknesses come out to create discord and a volatile gender divide. However, the horror is very much in the vein of Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Stepford Wives” where the everyday, systemic horrors of what is considered acceptable treatment of women is made manifest in the physical forms of “normal” people. Cly’s journey seems more like a framing device where the terror of facing herself, tragedy, obscurity, and all the daily specters she lets take pieces of her identity in exchange for willful ignorance is plainly established to set up Jaime’s reality. Cly is confronted by the outside force of Edith, the guest with whom she becomes entangled and is forced to interact with the loud, messy, emotional spillover of figurative demons, while Jaime is confronted by the physical spillover of inner demons given corporeal form.
While grief is the most explicit theme, in my opinion, the most important to the characters is the unknowable, unknown and escape. Both Jaime and Cly begin their journeys as insulated, fragmented people. Neither have any sense of self and cling to one idea as the monolith of their identity and means of escape—for Jaime this is being an aspiring writer, for Cly being a check-in clerk at the eponymous hotel or in her words a priestess of her temple. They navigate their mental, emotional, and external worlds based on this defining idea, and fall back on rigidly held behavioral norms to deal with the distracting, mundane assaults of anything that doesn’t pertain to the hotel or writing, the most notable being their parental interactions, as part of Jaime and Cly’s disconnect from their identities seem largely due to unstable, demanding, and unhappy mothers and quietly supportive fathers whose personalities have been subsumed by the fractious needs and unquenchable wants of their wives.
There are several different threads of connection and contrast between Jaime and Cly, and if you enjoy the writing style, many allusions and symbols to unpack. That being said, The Gold Persimmon just didn’t resonate with me. Some of it has to with the writing style and some from overblown expectations. Going in, I expected the writing style to play with structure and words choice, and initially, enjoyed Merbaum’s play on words and symbols. But as Part I progressed, I found myself disengaging from the story. Cly is named after a character in Greek legend, and as it’s a story I only have a vague familiarity with, I kept wondering if I was missing some important inversion or allegory to the myth as the metaphors and prose began bordering on overwrought or overly opaque more often. Is Clytemnestra a subtle inversion of the original and/or an associated archetype as her personality is completely opposite that of her namesake? Since Cly’s mother shares more in common with Clytemnestra of legend is this symbolic of Cly’s mother’s power over her/their intermingled psyches/Cly’s electra complex complicated by being a lesbian? And on and on. This also primed me for mythological nods in Part II, and even though I was familiar with the allusions, I noticed so I wasn’t plagued so much by questions of authorial intention, and the storyline is less dreamlike and muted than Cly’s, there was still nothing to connect me to the characters and their experiences.
Honestly, I just didn’t find anything new or revelatory in The Gold Persimmon. I looked up what “feminist horror” meant to the writer/publisher, and to put it bluntly, they’re not even slapping a fresh coat of paint on the genre and calling it new, they’re just renaming red as cherry red and calling it new. As a fan of horror in literature and film from all eras, horror in its earliest inceptions has always been a useful and impactful vehicle for social commentary; from its roots in dark, aggressive folktales and myths to becoming its own fully-fledged genre, the monsters and terrors more often than not serve as avatars for cautionary tales, societal norm enforcement, and unrests of the day. So feminist horror being “storytelling which uses horror tropes to explore feminist issues” is not new, and neither in its use of horror tropes, myths, or symbolism did The Gold Persimmon plow virgin soil for me. Maybe I’ve just read too many articles and books on feminist discourse lately, but there aren’t any compelling new takes on familiar topics that spoke to me as a woman or a feminist. I think The Gold Persimmon may appeal more to readers who are new to horror, typically avoid the genre because it’s most known for violence/gore, and/or just want a story centering quilt bag characters as it’s esoteric style and queer perspective are the story’s defining features.