S& M thriller needs fleshing out
IN 2007 Lucienne Joy worked on Maxine McKew’s campaign to unseat prime minister John Howard in the Sydney electorate of Bennelong. That McKew was pitted against Howard was a fairytale of sorts. Supported by a populace awakened to the need for a new kind of community, McKew triumphed over the giant of conservative Australian politics.
Joy’s first novel, Ulterior Motives , opens with a very different kind of fairytale in which Sleeping Beauty is awakened not by the chaste kiss of her prince but by the sex act.
The adults-only version of the classic tale is part of a collection tossed casually on to the bed of the novel’s narrator, Coco, by her new husband, Jack. The two have just shared an unsatisfactory honeymoon in Bali, where Coco found her new partner preferred to stay indoors reading while she lounged on the beach.
But Coco is about to discover something much worse: that fairytales can mean very different things to grown-ups with particular sexual interests, especially those of a sado-masochistic nature. Jack’s collection alerts Coco to the fact that she has married a man she hardly knows, and, like a traditional fairytale, the novel becomes a salutary lesson of sorts, a warning to women to learn something of their husbands before marrying.
Coco realises that Jack is more than just a ravaging prince. He’s the wolf in the woods and the old crone with the gingerbread, a Bluebeard with a secret cache of whips and ties and pornography. Soon she is resisting Jack’s increasingly frustrated attempts to recruit her into his pleasures.
In the publicity material that accompanies Ulterior Motives , Joy admits that she drew on her experiences of such a relationship when developing her story and that she wanted to come clean about it. Unlike the hapless Coco, who struggles to comprehend the situation she’s in, Joy urges people in similar situations to talk it over with friends, as she did, and to escape.
Like fairytales, stories with a strong moral message can be limited in their scope and complexity. Joy’s novel certainly suffers from this. A reader may be forgiven for wondering when something might happen. What is Jack going to do? What will Coco do next?
Jack is one-dimensional. His sexuality is immediately defined as perverted and Coco’s as normal, and the lengthy novel does not diverge from this view. Coco struggles to understand how she managed to marry someone she barely knew, and how the sex they enjoyed before marriage could metamorphose into the dark and peculiar. Yet rarely do we see her inner struggle with this, not only with the question of her deception by Jack, but her self-deception as well. There is also little attempt to explore Jack’s predilections.
What makes a man desire the kind of sex that involves constraining and humiliating a partner and being hurt in return? At times, Joy teeters close to a suggestion of homophobia that isn’t redeemed by Coco’s gay friend. Homosexual sex is equated with misogyny, and Jack’s sexuality compared to the Marquis de Sade’s who, Joy notes, was the product of a cold, dismissive mother, citing Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that de Sade was impotent with women and therefore gay.
But as Coco’s former lover, Xavier, says after researching de Sade on her behalf, ‘‘ I thought his books were just about sadism but I find there’s a lot more to them than that.’’
Jack’s hanging out with Andy Warhol years earlier seems to be left to explain much of his sexuality, just as Coco’s conservative Catholic upbringing is given to explain her prudishness. Both characters deserve much more complexity and depth, if not to lead them, and the reader, towards a greater understanding of how two people might discuss their sexual differences, then at least as a way of adding a sophisticated take on those conservative binaries that are as old as myth: beauty and the beast, innocence and knowing, monogamy and licentiousness.
Despite these limitations, the novel has some real magic in its evocation of place. As well as working on McKew’s campaign, Joy has extensive experience as a radio broadcaster in France, where she worked for Radio Riviera. This serves the novel well. Coco is also a broadcaster and Joy offers some enjoyable insights into life in the south of France. It is in these scenes that Joy’s narrative comes to life. From Cannes to the Italian border, Joy infuses her pages with geranium and bougainvillea-draped towns. She also offers insights into the characters of the coast, from resident writers such as Graham Greene to Nice’s dodgy politicians.
Joy’s observations about Monaco are particularly potent. That fairytale on the Riviera, also known as the boil on the bottom of France, is perfectly juxtaposed with the fractured fairytale of Coco’s marriage. Joy’s scene-setting is just lovely and I hope we hear much more from her in the future about her time on the French coast. Catherine Cole is professor of creative writing at RMIT University. Her most recent book is The Poet Who Forgot.