Sex without boobs

BREAKING HEARTS by Simon Gray Faber pounds 5.99

This is a story which thrives on oddness. A London University lecturer, full of self-hatred, with a puffy face, a wart under her nose and a boil on her bottom, has an Australian niece to stay for a month. Nothing wrong with that, but the lecturer is an amnesiac, a lonely alcoholic and, as far as one can tell, a pervy fantasist obsessed with bosoms and bondage. She doesn't actually do anything to her niece apart from burst in (by mistake-on-purpose) when the young Aussie is having her bath. On the old bird's desk sits a sinister document, a diary whose title page sports the dedication: "For Dr Helena Twiscombe, PhD, from a grateful student. In Memoriam."

Simon Gray's very short novel - or is it quite a long short story? - whichever - contains a tale within a tale. The outer crust is all about Helena Twiscombe, her visits to AA, her grindingly low opinion of herself, her smothering relationship with her niece, and her inability to do her job properly - she is eventually sacked for failing to turn up to tutorials. The middle section, the inner story as it were, is a reading of the diary, which purports to be the work of one of her brightest students describing, in careful detail, the seduction of Ms Twiscombe's niece at a flat on the Embankment.

Writing sex scenes is never an easy task. Literary Review magazine offers an annual award to the novelist whose fictional account of a sexual act is judged to be the most cringeingly and irredeemably awful to be published that year. The great skill in sex fiction is surely to avoid authorial sweatiness (we don't want to think the writer is "getting off" on it). That's one part of the job, but a good description also needs to be constructed and inserted with enough artistry to enthral even its most cynical reader. I would be most surprised if Simon Gray is even nominated for this year's Bad Sex Award. His long and graphic account of a lesbian bondage game, the heart, if you like, of the whole story, adroitly avoids making a fool of its author. He sets up skittles, not to show them off but to knock them for six. If Mrs Twiscombe describes the whole thing as "filth - aggressively pornographic" she is wrong. Simon Gray is far too smart to make a fool of himself here. If he is tempted to describe a black ribbon as a dark stream that "trailed indolently between the two curving hills," he is also the first to spot the absurdity of it all and to redefine the image as "the ribbon which hung between her boobs (that's more like it - boobs not hills, ribbon not steam)." Even that leaves him uncomfortable and he tries to compromise with "hillocks", but that won't do either: "boobs, tits, Bristols, hillocks, titty-pops, Sissy-pops, who cares? As long as they're not Twisky-pops!"

Breaking Hearts is a brilliant, stylish little work - a tour de force that gallops along hardly stopping for breath; ingeniously constructed in the best tradition of English tragic satire, moving, funny, sexy and beguiling - the sort of book you could happily read two or three times and still be keen for another shot.

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