All Flowers Bloom, written by Kawika Guillermo and published by Westphalia Press, is a book that is difficult to define, let alone review. It is ostensibly a novel, classified as queer speculative fiction, but there is not exactly a plot to follow. At least, there is not just one plot but at least 26 smaller stories within. The protagonist is not only one character, but a multitude of characters linked by a resurrected soul repeating through time in chapters labeled from A to Z. Gender and nationality and circumstances change again and again, leaving the reader with strong impressions but hard to remember details… Not unlike a dream that way.
The main character, if a name can be given at all, is called 871. (The only other character, just S.) The only consistent setting to keep track of is the strange surreal limbo known as the Ilium, the afterlife waystation described irreverently as some kind of gaudy cruise ship, a lonely sort of paradise. There, this soul finds him or herself occasionally between lives, reflecting on what has come before.
That reflection is often about love, for this is above all a love story. The most epic love story imaginable, consisting of endless lifetimes as two souls find each again and again in new circumstances. Guillermo shows much range in writing about so many times and places.
When the journey begins, far back in Biblical times, the prose is already eminently powerful in describing the obsessive struggle to go on. “The day didn’t come by itself. We had to push the sun up, lift it with our arms to keep time from standing still.”
The whole setup of this world is not explained in so many words initially, leaving the reader to interpret. Eventually, some questions are answered, such as in a certain lifetime when the two intertwined souls find themselves in warring tribes and a shaman explains, “You were in love before you were born.”
However, another theme other than love that keeps coming up is the concept of death. There are the suicides, the lives failed. One lifetime ends with the execution of a Roman slave, a tragedy finalized by the beautiful line, “The debris of time stripped away until I collided with your corpse.”
All over time and place, the book keeps going. The Kanem Empire. Colonized India. Every land from history that can be imagined. In imperial China, the soulmates are prostitute-courtesans unable to admit they are lovers. Sadly, in many of these timelines love is a sin. In so many cultures, their love is a blasphemy. They are infidels.
Soon, the chapters begin to catch up to the 20th century, featuring American servicemen, World War II from the perspective of a German POV, and the nearly-modern 1970s. Meanwhile, in the afterlife ‘Pleasure Cruise’, he/she laments on all these past lives while hibernating eternity away. Yet if this sounds too serious, there’s also plenty there to lighten the mood “Heaven has alcohol,” they say. “That’s what makes it Heaven.”
This sort of book can be a challenge, admittedly. The questions asked and unanswered repeat themselves at times, the fanciful wordsmithing is something the reader can appreciate and also something that can be exhausting. “The stream was a consciousness,” the text explains, a metaphor most literal.
In Book Two, the poetry continues but suddenly an even more ambitious genre begins. As the present time comes and goes, we enter the science fictional era. So begins tales of the corporate wars to come, of digitally uploaded sentience, of post-humanism. This makes for some truly surreal futuristic sex scenes.
Foremost, this is still a spiritual tome. From the Islamicist references early on, to a bourgeoning Buddhist enlightenment as the novel progresses, religion keeps coming up. One question that is repeatedly asked and never answered to satisfaction, is that of who and what is a god.
“Do gods exist?” (s)he asks.
“We’re the only gods I know of,” is answered. “We are the only true gods.”
“We’re souls, not gods.”
“We. Are. Gods.”
And back and forth it goes into infinity, never truly explained.
Millennia later, it turns out that this story may be more cynical than all that love talk previously implied. Not that there wasn’t foreshadowing. “Love is a false desire when directed at one rather than many,” warned the Buddha. A good reviewer shouldn’t give too much away, but perhaps there’s a lesson in there about how when we get what we want it doesn’t always make us happy. Even if it takes four thousand years.
If all is erased, then was it just meaningless? That is up to the reader to decide. In the grand scheme across epochs, there were three phases: Generation, Optimization, and Destruction. Interpret that as you will.
As for the title, early in the book we are told that not all flowers bloom. Yet later, after so much philosophizing, another conclusion is reached. All Flowers Bloom!
So there is reason to hold out for hope after all. Don’t ever forget it.