S& M thriller needs flesh­ing out

Cather­ine Cole

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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