The book’s publication was already imminent when the detective got in touch to tell the family that this 35-year-old case, which they had always assumed would remain unsolved, was close to being brought to trial. All the time Nelson had been lending her imagination to the story, Detective Schroeder had been following leads based on DNA.
“I bet you thought you were working on this alone all these years,” he said. And so, almost immediately, another book was born. The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial follows with extraordinary emotional control her family’s reliving of the old trauma, and documents some others along the way: not least her father’s sudden, fatal heart attack, when she was 10 years old.
Until recently, Nelson’s writing career has been conducted on the cooler fringes of philosophy, poetry and academia. But her last book, The Argonauts, brought her from the underground into something closer to the mainstream. It seems, in retrospect, a curious transition: published in 2015, The Argonauts, the title of which is borrowed from a passage in a book by Roland Barthes, also steals the structure of Barthes’s late work, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, and quotes liberally from thinkers such as Julia Kristeva and Anne Carson, their names dotted in the margins.
The topic? Nelson’s relationship with Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered and with whom she sleeps before she knows which pronoun to use in relation to him. Over the course of the book, Harry has surgery to remove his breasts and starts taking male hormones, while Maggie becomes pregnant with their child. The book instantly struck a nerve: intimate, honest and unafraid of critical thought, it was praised by reviewers all over the world, and was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio prize.
Now two of Nelson’s earlier books – The Red Parts and Bluets – are being published in the UK for the first time, which has the curious effect, for the British reader, of reading her backwards. The Red Parts was originally published in 2007; Bluets, which was released in 2009, describes a love affair that took place between 2003 and 2006. Ostensibly a meditation on the colour blue, it’s really about a heartbreak suffered by a person who once thought she might write about the colour blue. Various blue objects, instances and emotions have been collected, and assembled like impractical relics around her ongoing distress at the hands of a man she calls “the prince of blue”, who has left her for another woman.