The Wellspring by Sharon Olds
Click to follow
The Wellspring by Sharon Olds, Cape pounds 7.

Having contemplated death at close range in her brilliant last book, The Father, Olds starts off her new one with some equally shocking close- ups of conception in "My Parents' Wedding Night, 1937". Quite why she chooses to dwell on the "silvery salty sweet fish / of my mother's maidenhood" is another question. Is it a form of courage, thinking about the unthinkable, or merely sensationalism? Her one concession to propriety is to use the word "pudenda" rather than the four-letter one she uses when talking about herself. And men have a "penis" rather than a prick, though they possess "balls".

I mention these things because writing about sex is a ticklish business, and choice of vocabulary and register is all-important. The current rage for full-frontals is as rabid as Victorian deathbed scenes, though the idea that sex and God are interchangeable metaphysical items, floated by Michele Roberts, seems as quaint to me as any South Seas cargo cult. Olds's attempts to tell sex like it is by wrapping it in a wide-eyed, pietistic, clinical and vernacular lexis - her genitalia as "the soul, vertical / undulant one ... dancing upright in her dream" - remain unconvincing.

The book's ambition is to anatomise rites-of-passage moments all the way from sucking the breast ("My First Weeks") and adolescent fumblings, to the joys and pains of motherhood and middle age. Death gets a look- in too ("His Father's Cadaver"), and so do mothers, fathers and sibling rivalry. There's some good detail, but in general this "apprenticeship to the mortal" pants too hard after epiphany.

William Scammell