When I pointed out Matadora to a friend in a bookstore last weekend, she scrunched her nose.

“Who wants to read a book about bullfighting?”

Well, readers might turn to Elizabeth Ruth’s third novel for many other reasons. (So, if you’re scrunching your nose too, please read on.)

First, she was mentored by Timothy Findley, and much of her work considers themes that preoccupied him too. (He’s a favourite of mine.)

And, Matadora comes via Cormorant Books which publishes quality stuff like Darren Greer’s Still Life with June, Elspeth Cameron’s biography of The Girls, and James King’s Étienne’s Alphabet.

Cormorant Books, 2013

Cormorant Books, 2013

But even without a speck of background, the idea of a book rooted in the life of a woman who inhabits a traditionally male sphere (and, yes, history backs up this fiction) is intriguing, right?

Anyway, after reading only twenty pages, readers realize that Matadora is about bullfighting, but it’s also about ambition and excellence, desire and passion, art and politics.

Readers meet Luna when she is a girl, a servant in the Garcia family, and from the opening pages, her spirit is evident.

“Luna clenched her jaw to hold her temper, but it was too late. Whenever she was reminded of her dubious station, loneliness slid under her tongue and pooled there like spoiled milk until she spat it out.”

She is often alone but not always lonely. Her relationship with one of the Garcia sons is a source of vital support, and although her mother died during childbirth, Paqui has cared for her since birth.

“’On the night you were born I swaddled you in an old sheet, and paced, deciding what name would suit you best. When the storm cleared, I crept outside to search for inspiration. The moon was bright but the sky was black like this one,’ she said. ‘I knew; you were like that moon, rare and determined.’”

Readers learn of this much later, after substantial evidence of Luna’s rarity has been displayed. Thanks to the friendship of Manuel Garcia, who also recognizes this quality in her, she attends her first bullfight and becomes all-the-more determined to achieve her dream.

“Belmonte shook the muleta and taunted the bull until he charged, and when he made his famous arch, bending one arm to slay the bull instantly, young women in the crowd indeed swooned, though Luna was not one of them. She knew she didn’t want to become one of Belmont’s lovers, at her unlikely age, or at any other. She wanted to become Belmonte.”

The relationship with Manuel seems unlikely, but there is an explanation which readers soon discover. At first it appears simply an instinctive connection, which perhaps resides in the passion that Manuel has for writing poetry and Luna has for bullfighting.

“Of course he understood her need for acceptance; they were alike physically and in their desire to express themselves, but also in matters that concerned the heart. Acceptance in the ring meant everything to her, and offered her a place in a kind of family.”

But the novel unfolds in times and places undergoing radical change (Andalucía 1932-1933; México 1933-1936; and Sangre Mio and Madrid 1936-1937), and Manual is prepared to challenge tradition in unexpected ways.

Still, even Luna’s advocates struggle to overcome expectations about gender roles.

“A poet must be bold, he thought, as daring as a bullfighter, and yet he still hadn’t learned to let go. He turned to Luna. ‘No pants outside the ring,’ he said, trying to regain some composure.”

So it is understandable that Luna has some fundamental questions about identity, and she faces substantial resistance from without and some uncertainty from within.

“Was she still a girl? Had a taste for power and blood made her less of one?”

Yes, as I told my friend, Matadora is about bullfighting. And obviously this is controversial; the author’s note at the end of the novel begins by saying that in writing Matadora, she “didn’t question whether bullfighting ought to be permitted” and refers to other sources on this matter.

But fiction can take readers to places on the page that they would not choose to venture in everyday life. And bullfighting raises a lot of significant questions, for Luna and for readers.

“That the matador kills is not in question, but what is it that she kills, exactly? Is it time, which has been ticking down her days since the moment she first gulped air? Is it something in herself she fears; the animal urge to inflict pain so evident in small children and in times of war? Or is it simply loss, sewn unavoidably into human skin? Death is the ultimate loss. Is that what the powerful bull allows us to conquer?”

It is impossible to imagine Luna’s character without the context of bullfighting, but she deals with loss both in and out of the ring, and the questions she battles are human questions. (There is love in the novel as well, but I’m not talking spoilers.)

James Baldwin wrote: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who have ever been alive.”

Elizabeth Ruth’s Matadora connects readers with Luna’s torments and triumphs just as good books should. “Some of us spend too long concealing our natures, hoping and waiting and praying to be loved, while others risk everything to reveal themselves. She knew who she was.”

[Edited to add a link to the CBC interview on “The Next Chapter” with Elizabeth Ruth and Shelagh Rogers, which reveals that the author did not pursue the idea of writing about bullfighting, but the subject allowed her to explore issues of class and politics in a new and interesting way.]

Elizabeth Ruth will be at this year’s IFOA and she will also appear at Toronto’s Word on the Street this Sunday. Matadora is my latest IFOA Wednesday read: a pleasure.IFOASmallBadge