BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Charlotte Roche, translated from the German by Tim Mohr
2009, Grove Press
Be warned, this book is rife with graphic language and the descriptions are often quite prurient, sexually, scatalogically, and otherwise. I won’t really be able to quote or fully express what exactly Roche discusses in this novel without the review being flagged NSFW. That said, this is an excellent novel, and the explicit writing certainly lends itself to that. You’ll see above that I’ve added “Chick Lit” as one of the labels. That’s a borderline definition. I feel it is fair to an extent (although I, personally, tend to regard chick lit as the antithesis to literary novels). It is, especially the first half, a novel very much concerned with the intimate details of women, particularly their relationships to their own bodies. But there is no name dropping of fashion accessories or anything silly like that, and this is undeniably an intelligent and emotionally complex book.
It is also a sad book deep down. Helen is a hurt young woman, both emotionally and physically. The entire novel occurs in a hospital, where Helen is recovering from a hemorrhoidectomy. Helen is an 18 year-old student whose life has seen far too much freedom and experienced far too much sex (not quite to the point of deviance, but close). And this is how we meet Helen: through her own assertions and admissions of her sexuality and physicality. She needed the surgery because she tore her anus during anal sex, which she describes vividly, as she does everything else. The word “pussy” appears on nearly every page of the book.
But as Helen becomes more comfortable with her reader, she slowly reveals her sad emotional story. Her relationship to her family is strained to say the least. We learn her mother tried to commit suicide by asphyxiation, and attempted to bring Helen’s younger brother with. This split the family and essentially left Helen without parents, certainly without supervision. And the duplicity this creates in Helen is quite well rendered by Roche. Helen is at once a physically mature, if promiscuous woman, and a confused and lonely child.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of how this manifests is also her most vulnerable secret: her avocados. Helen had herself sterilized the moment she was of age. Her only hobby, besides various sex acts (and really, they get pretty wild) is raising avocados, which, as she explains it, is a careful and time consuming–measured in years–process. And she supplants her motherly urges by raising the pits. She even inserts them inside herself and “births” them. Again, Roche builds Helen’s layers expertly, deftly amalgamating in the character a woman with an irreparable schism between sexuality and biology and a young girl mothering an inanimate object.
Helen gets it in her head that the longer she can stay in the hospital, the more likely the chances she can get her parents into the same room. And thus the more likely her family can be repaired. The futility of such logic tugs at you a bit, especially coming from such a damaged creature. Eventually Helen decides to reopen her wound in order to extend her stay. I won’t spoil how, but it was one of the hardest to read scenes I’ve ever read. Right up there with the incestual public bath scene in A. M. Homes’s The End of Alice.
So yeah, the language and topics can be explicit, and indeed I cringed at times. But it also can be quite funny, and while the language doesn’t hold back, it is not explicit to the point of vulgarity or gratuity. Too often, such language in books is scowled at, referred to “crutch words” or unliterary. While that is true often, it is not so always. Helen’s wide-open and candid sexuality and her ability to articulate it in the narration play a perfect foil to her walled-off emotional self. Wetlands would not be nearly as good without it, and she really is quite a wonderful character in a wonderful book.