July 2, 2005

Unnatural Passions

A long time ago, Hg recommended a book called Skating To Antarctica, by Jenny Diski to me, but I never got around to reading it. Then a few weeks ago I was visiting Bristol, and came across a bookstall of some sort, run by earnest people, so it must have been for anti-vivisection purposes or something. Anyway, that’s beside the point. One of the books was Nothing Natural, by Jenny Diski; being a cat of excellent memory [in fact, a mind like a steel trap, as has been remarked], I remembered the recommendation, and purchased it for £1.

And that’s how I ended up reading a kinky novel on the train to work every day this week.

Now, I don’t know whether I should consider myself to be well-read in this genre, but it did seem to be an intellectual cut above your Anne Rice nonsense, so that was a good start. Another book it called to mind was Killing Me Softly, by Nicci French, although Ms Diski writes about the dynamic of a sadomasochistic relationship with more authority and less sugar coating than Ms French. Of course both the main characters are screwed-up bundles of issues, but that’s what unnatural desires are made of, isn’t it?

The story, in brief, is the tale of Rachel, a hardass single mother, with the emphasis on single, and Joshua, a Bad Man. They meet infrequently, at her flat, where he tortures her mentally and physically, and they both enjoy it. In a subplot, Rachel teaches a disadvantaged teenager, who is treated badly by the authorities who are supposed to care for him. When this comes to a bad end, she suffers from a severe bout of the depression to which she is prone; and although I have never experienced depression, I would think that this is more than just a sketch of how it feels to be chronically suicidal. Meanwhile, we are wondering whether Joshua could indeed be the sadistic rapist of whom Rachel has seen an accurate photofit sketch in the papers; she certainly believes him to be capable of losing control of his fantasies.

In an afterword, the author claims that the book is about honesty in relationships, and this is certainly a strong theme. It is also about power in relationships, and about people who appear to be totally self-sufficient but are usually hurt or confused on the inside. Initially, literary feminists applauded this novel, because although the heroine is initially portrayed as a weak and pathetic betrayer of the female race, in her enjoyment of pain and humiliation, she does eventually get revenge. the story of a single parent locked in an abusive relationship“>This review seems to miss the point quite nicely. According to the afterword, when Diski pointed out that they had completely misunderstood her intentions, which were to show the heroine losing her grip on reality in the end, feminist bookshops refused to stock it. Fortunately it’s still available in mainstream bookstores, where no political points need be made, only amazon points.

For me, the novel is not flawless, but is darkly gripping. The writing style is too like my own fiction style [as opposed to blog style, which I prefer, but try as I might, I cannot produce fiction in this same style, meh], and as such I consider it to be slightly clunking prose, a little bit trying-too-hard. At the point where Rachel’s depression hits, the novel becomes very bleak, but you’re right there with her, wanting something external to make it all better, just as she does; or desperate for her to pull herself out of it, but understanding that that’s really not how depression works.



2 thoughts on “Unnatural Passions

  1. I’ve read quite a few of Diski’s books, but not this one. I remember the fuss when it was published though.
    Skating To Antarctica is more autobiographical and I loved its uncompromising style, shot through with a rich vein of poker-faced humour:
    “Oblivion, strictly speaking, was what I was after, but white hospital sheets were an approximation, I believed.”
    More here: http://www.granta.com/books/chapters/171.

  2. Very soon after I read Nothing Natural, I read Hope by Glen Duncan – another book (very very good) which includes lots of sex and pronography. I wonder what that says about my state of mind at the time.
    Anyway, both books are very good, thought provoking and likely to play on your emotions and angst levels. In particular, I think most people would probably see a little teensy-weensy (at least) bit of themselves in each of the main characters – both books speak of coming to terms with one’s role in relationships, particularly the sexual aspect, the definition of love and trust and much more. Recommended.

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