Lesson 3: She is forever pursued by a host of vague adjectives ‘proper,’ ‘correct,’ ‘genteel,’ which hunt her to death…

Warning: This blog involves a pro/con list.

I also want to say that I do recommend this book because I could never not recommend Gemmell.  She’s done too much for me with her cheeky interviews, weekly columns, and the Bride.

PRO CON
It made me cry. It may ride on the side of making women objects. Just a bit, a tad.
It is the well-written 50 Shades of Grey — with a better ending. The ubiquitous “you,” or as you grammar types like: second person.
Voice. Repetition.
Australia (Bush Girl). England (Rain).
Nikki Gemmell Wasn’t as good as Bride Stripped Bare
Harper Collins (P.S.) First Section

Okay, now I will work my way through this.

UK Cover

American Cover (Someone needs to do a backstory on why these covers are so vastly different).

Bride Stripped Bare is one of my top five books ever.  If you are wondering about what to read next read Bride Stripped Bare.  It was the first book that made me pay attention to the publisher.  I loved that book and I loved it even more when Nikki Gemmell came out as the “anonymous” author because she’s Australian, and fiesty.

I have high expectations for all of her novels.  I wasn’t too keen on Shiver, but it was interesting because of the arctic.  Going into this new book, with the nude cuddle cover and the font very much like Bride Stripped Bare, I was thinking, once again Nikki Gemmell has hit rock solid gold rush.  While I think her voice is still the voice I loved in Bride Stripped Bare, I’m not sure this story gives the same resonance metaphorically, or the same want is driving the story.   In both books, a woman is finding herself, but in With My Body, Gemmell has made the main character a woman with life stages that I haven’t ever found myself wanting to have.  I’m sure I’ve been this woman in various stages, but I’m not sure I wanted to, which made this book a struggle to read.

Here are the phases of womanhood in book order.

  1. Upset Housewife
  2. Bush Girl
  3. Step-daughter
  4. Unwanted Child
  5. Flirt
  6. Seductress
  7. Naive pre-teen
  8. Sexual Deviant (society standards)
  9. Happy Housewife
  10. Happy Mother
  11. In-love woman with husband
  12. In-love woman with self

Obviously, those last four I would like to be, but the rest…not so much.

I think Gemmell has always done a good job of showing us the inner lives of humans.  There is someone in your cubicle row who goes home and uses the dotted tie around his collar in his bedroom exploration.  He is the Columbus of that room in 2012.  There is someone who is divorced, and lonely who cries not because the work day was especially hard but because the stove light is the only thing on when they come home.  There is a woman who wishes she wouldn’t see you at the school gate.  There is a woman dreading the next PTA meeting.  There is a family who can’t afford tissues for the classroom list, but will buy them anyway.

We are surrounding each other.

Gemmell’ Books

Gemmell shows that well in every novel she writes.  These inner-workings, not only in households, but in psyches.  She explores the dynamics of this woman’s life through a diary of thought.   My problem with the way she went about this is that silly little “you.”  While the you is a dang powerful force in short fiction, and should be taken very VERY lightly in any form, in a novel it’s kind of heavy.  Maybe not even kind of, maybe really heavy.

I’m not even sure we ever get a name for this woman we’re with throughout 462 pages.  She is called various names, “annoyance, mum, wife,” but I don’t think she’s ever given an actual name.  She is always, and forever will be, “you.”  I understand the idea behind this, make the reader feel as if they are the one in the story, they are living through this trauma, this boarding school, these artistic men who leave them broken and unhinged, but the “you” is simultaneously too far away, and too private.  I can’t scrape enough details from the page in the first section (pre-Tol) to really feel like I’m reading a grand novel, with a voice made of desire.

Gemmell is trying so hard to make this every woman, instead of just making it one woman who is relatable.  Then the voice is so private and so much Gemmell’s own writing voice that it’s too private – it leaves the reader out of the loop.  We are not the watcher of things happening, or the reader of the diary, we are just reading.  I hate books where I’m just a reader, I want to be in it, in the thick bush of it (literarily).

I’m frustrated by this.  I so badly wanted to be this woman, and I was excluded because of that darn second person.  I couldn’t be her because I wasn’t let in with enough details and metaphors.  It was almost too much thought, and too much in the specific mind of this woman that the surrounding details weren’t there.  I want to know what she smells like, what the bush smells like, what it tastes like when the pages of eucalyptus are burning.  I need these fine things in writing, and I need them in order to place myself there.  I need them to travel with the book and feel the Australian dead soil on my bare feet making them black and molten.  But, you’re not given that because all you get are thoughts and feelings which can almost never drive a narrative.

When you do get to the sexual exploration with Tol in the middle parts of the book, it does pick up.  We’re learning with the two of them about bodies and teenage excitement, and the tools of writing that Tol uses, like feathers, knap-sacks, tin cans filled with pencils.  However, because this is an older man “teaching” a younger woman how to be an instrument of pleasure, it rides a little on objectification.  I think the ending is needed just so women accept the advantages taken.  While “you” learns what her body can do, and learns how to control it, this man is also feeding her pleasure, making sure she is anchored to him.  It’s a bit unsettling when you really think about it.  Obviously, she finds herself by the end (can’t tell you how) and finds how much it helped her to be seventeen and spending her summer against a spring mattress on the floor.

All I can think about after finishing this book is the dust that settled into that house, coated dressers and collected on windowsills is the same dust that traveled with her always, connecting her to Tol and that summer.  And that’s a lovely sentiment.  How that one piece of place, a sense of it, dusts us and brings us back to those people.  For me, dirty dishes carry me to Australia.  Anytime I’m doing dishes, I’m thinking about the rain in Canberra and the e-mails warning us not to walk in tall grasses unless there’s a clear path.  It’s funny how these domestic things tie us to places.  Obviously what ties her to this place is her own sexual awakening in a house that is crumbling by death, and Australian dust.

I love finding out what brings people to memories.  And they’re always dainty things; sounds, smells, simple mannerisms.  Moth balls in the stairwell bring the linings of my father’s suit jackets that are huddled on hangers like birds on electric wires.  Honeysuckle means catching crayfish in the creek behind the playground.  If you take anything from this book, take the symbols of your memory.  Take the smell of your mom’s sugar icing and let yourself drift into her yellow kitchen, her ladybug curtains.

6 thoughts on “Lesson 3: She is forever pursued by a host of vague adjectives ‘proper,’ ‘correct,’ ‘genteel,’ which hunt her to death…

    • Cassie says:

      I think most of her books use the you. Bride Stripped Bare does it really well. Read that one first….or maybe save it for last since it’s the best one. :)

    • Cassie says:

      It was an odd one. Definitely try Bride Stripped Bare (it’s also in second person). I wouldn’t make sure you read it or anything if you have a pile.

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