Arous­ing jour­ney leads to a hot mess

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Fiona Wright

The Ad­ven­tures of Holly White and the In­cred­i­ble Sex Ma­chine By Krissy Kneen Text Pub­lish­ing, 288pp, $29.99 The Ad­ven­tures of Holly White and the In­cred­i­ble Sex Ma­chine is — and I think Krissy Kneen would ap­pre­ci­ate the term — some­thing of a hot mess of a book. Like much of Kneen’s work, it is a strange hy­brid, a joy­ful and am­bi­tious mix of science fic­tion, com­ing-of-age, adventure story, lit­er­ary fic­tion and, of course, erot­ica. It rev­els un­self­con­sciously in bring­ing th­ese dif­fer­ent el­e­ments to­gether and is al­ways play­ful and quirky, but the book never quite finds its bal­ance and is un­even as a re­sult.

The first sec­tion of the book is by far the strong­est. Here we are in­tro­duced to Holly White, a gen­tle and beau­ti­ful young woman who, along with her three best friends, wears an ab­sti­nence ring en­graved with the words “True love waits”. Holly lives with her par­ents and is vaguely in­fan­tilised by both them and her boyfriend; she hides the lit­er­a­ture she likes to read within the cov­ers of women’s mag­a­zines, so that her friends don’t catch her out.

Holly also hap­pens to have, as we dis­cover in the open­ing chap­ters, a glow-in-the-dark vagina. More specif­i­cally, she emits a phos­phor-

May 16-17, 2015 es­cence from her nether re­gions when she is aroused. This kind of kook­i­ness is Kneen’s spe­cial ter­ri­tory, and Holly’s re­ac­tions to her own strange power are pitch-per­fect — funny, poignant and ab­surd by turns.

Kneen’s de­pic­tion of Holly is al­ways skil­ful. Even though Holly’s life, at first, re­volves largely around clothes, groom­ing and chaste par­ties, she is not sim­ple or su­per­fi­cial, and Kneen’s por­trayal of her is never mock­ing or un­sym­pa­thetic. Holly is gen­uine and good-na­tured, but she is also a keen and funny ob­server — and this is de­light­fully ev­i­dent when she at­tends her first lec­ture in her lit­er­a­ture class, along­side book­ish stu­dents she sees as ‘‘fu­ri­ously in­tel­li­gent, bel­liger­ently un­stylish aliens’’ with ‘‘skin dry and crisp like pa­per spilling from the press’’.

It is un­der the aus­pices of one of th­ese lit­er­a­ture stu­dent aliens that Holly’s ad­ven­tures re­ally begin, when she un­know­ingly joins an erotic lit­er­a­ture book club and be­gins to read about the kinds of ex­pe­ri­ences she has so far been deny­ing her­self. In­deed, th­ese ‘‘erotic clas­sics’’ in­form not only Holly’s jour­ney but also the struc­ture of the book — each of Kneen’s chap­ters takes its ti­tle from a work of erotic lit­er­a­ture, and draws on it as it un­folds. At times, this is as sim­ple as a shared char­ac­ter’s name or a place; of­ten it is more sub­tle — the chap­ter named for Mar­guerite Duras’s The Lover, for ex­am­ple, fo­cuses briefly on Holly’s gold san­dals — or play­ful, such as the chap­ter Eat Me, which de­lights in eroti­cis­ing food. Th­ese al­lu­sions are one of the joys of this novel, and the con­ceit is one of the more suc­cess­ful re­sults of Kneen’s mix­ing of gen­res.

The main prob­lem with The Adventure of Holly White and the In­cred­i­ble Sex Ma­chine, how­ever, is that it fails to live up to the prom­ise of its es­tab­lish­ing chap­ters. Holly’s early ex­pe­ri­ences of voyeuris­tic but nec­es­sar­ily chaste de­sire are in­cred­i­bly sen­sual — and sexy — filled with long­ing and imag­i­na­tion and a highly at­tuned reg­is­ter of tex­tures and scents in par­tic­u­lar (one char­ac­ter smells of ‘‘cin­na­mon, cloves and … a rich wild truf­flish musk like the den of a fox’’, an­other of ‘‘earth, wet leaves … spiced wine and fer­mented fruit’’.) More im­por­tant, they are bal­anced by the de­vel­op­ing plot and a se­ries of in­ter­est­ing sec­ondary char­ac­ters, as well as an in­trigu­ing nar­ra­tive about an ob­scure and rene­gade sci­en­tist’s ex­per­i­ments into ‘‘or­gone en­ergy’’.

But as the novel pro­gresses and Holly leaves

Krissy Kneen’s lat­est novel is play­ful and quirky

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