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Review: Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

Swallowing avocado flesh scooped with a spoon from the sliced half in my hand, I told a friend that I collect the stones. “You complete Memel,” she said with the filthiest grin I have ever seen. And that’s how I found this book. 

Those dried stones now sit very uneasily in the glass bowl on my window ledge. Why? In Wetlands, Helen Memel uses her stones to masturbate, just part of the (supposedly) weird and wonderful things about female sexuality the book explores. 

Myths about femininity have long been with us. Past cultures fashioned notions of womanhood we perpetuate in new disguises and female sexualities (for there are many kinds) have been made taboo or rewritten by other hands. Bodies have been scarred and pages torn from female consciousness.

It is 2010, women feel on top. How I cringe. Confident with curves, an array of the latest bedroom gadgets. Smirking to themselves as they read the Cosmopolitan and More sex pages. Yawn. Girls who think they are on top are like dogs on extending leads. Seemingly free to roam the grass land of their sexuality, if they stray too far then the patriarchal hand will rein them right back in. 

Sexualised to acceptable limits, we not only adhere to the ideas  about our gender but play up to what society permits us to say turns us on. Roche attempts to undo such caricatures. Her representation of a sexually alert female comes full circle, retreating to ideologies about the hysteric female which are intrinsically entwined with backward notions of sexuality.

As both a reader, writer and fan of theory, I adore l’ecriture feminine, that much debated process of writing female bodies. Roche’s engaging bodily vocabulary is as bold as critics have claimed and between smiles and winces, readers can actively agree or disagree, finding their limits with Memel's turn ons. 

But would this book have been a best seller if the protagonist had (with absolute scare quotes) more ‘typical’ bedroom habits? Probably not. We all love a peep through the windows of our neighbours and Memel's quirks and habits contribute to her challenging and likeable character.

The narrative has moments of steamy brilliance, her date with the stranger and the intimacy of the shaving scene vividly springs to mind. But there were many moments where I felt Roche too obviously fictionalised experience for the sake of shock value. I do not doubt that there are women who would stand by aspects of this book as true to their experiences but the professed "semi-autobiographical" nature of the book leans too heavily on Roche's hunger for fame.

In a book claimed to make a ‘frank exploration of female sexuality’, I found more masquerade than truth. Fakery aside, Memel's character is confident in exploring what works for her body. She conveys an honesty, humour and courage that many women lack.  It is a shame, then, that a character so in touch with her own brand of sexuality is devalued through her supposed mental instability, used somewhat as an excuse. 

Was I surprised that a woman, alert to her own sexual appetite was lauded as 'a bit crazy?' Not at all. Several times, this book reminded me of 'The Yellow Wallpaper', a short story that exposes patriarchal ideology, the historic treatment of women as hysteric. Sadly Wetlands doesn't break these ideologies because Roche insists on devaluing the sexual experiences that she intends to celebrate to the point of dark humour. We laugh at Memel's kinks. Rather than seeing ourselves, we see an 'other'. These bodily narratives are ground breaking and I'd imagine would shock more men than women but the novel as a whole struggled to find a middle ground, erring on the side of controversy and extremism. 

Yet again, in contemporary literature, as in film and too often, real life, we are provided with a female protagonist who fails to deliver sexual confidence with the savviest stability and self control. Are we bumbling-but-celebrated Bridget Jones's? Loopy sexual deviants like Helen Memel? Not in the slightest. Those two binary opposites of womanhood are selling just as well today as the rejoiced Victorian Angels of the House and scorned New Women. We should treat this with heightened awareness if we intend to move our bodies beyond the expected.



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