Literary porn is an irritating genre. Vaunting transgression and laudable freedoms, it makes demands on your liberal tolerance. But it promises thrills a body of text can rarely deliver. What it does deliver is inevitably repetitive and claustrophobic: that's the nature of the ritualised animal act. Bodies on the page, pace de Sade, are rarely as interesting as the minds which drive them.
The Bride Stripped Bare is not altogether literary porn. But it wants to situate itself within the transgressive line of Story of O. This is the "brave" story of the suburban post-feminist housewife become a desiring machine. The title takes us back to Marcel Duchamp's enigmatic glass work with its stripping suitors envisioned as mechanical parts, ropes and pulleys, above them a wasp-like blob of a bride.
The trouble is that this Bride wants it all ways. Her picture comes with a lot of frames. One tells you that the novelist Nikki Gemmell felt she had to write this book anonymously because of its scandalous nature, but was outed and so decided on a "named" anonymity. Another tells you the diary was found by a father whose daughter's car and, we later learn, grandson's pushchair were discovered on the edge of a cliff after both had disappeared - either into death, or a new life. Then comes the dedication: "For my husband. For every husband". Finally, there's the diary itself, each entry a lesson prefaced by a Victorian handbook's advice to housewives.
After all this, to find the story of a good wife who isn't comes as something of a let-down. It really is common knowledge, certainly in the novel, that after a while sex in marriage is rarely as exciting as the adulterous kind. Husbands, poor old Charles Bovary most graphic among them, are dull creatures from the wife's point of view, though from the husband's, the wife is hardly more exciting.
At the end of a much-delayed honeymoon in Morocco, our sexually dissatisfied but compliant wife finds that her art-restorer husband may be having an affair with her best friend. This tips her into a depressive spiral. In an attempt to prod her out of it, he buys her membership to the London Library, where she can research a book on an anonymous text called "Womans Worth", a Wife of Bath-like treatise proving "Woemen doe excell men".
That book doesn't happen, but the affair does. Our heroine meets, once more, the improbable Gabriel, who nudged fantasies into action before he vanished. Now, they're ready for each other and for a sexual twosome which grows obsessive.
Our heroine's pleasure, graphic as it becomes, is hardly astonishing. She likes it secret. She likes to be in control. She likes to teach (she was once a teacher) her lover the ins and outs, the pushes and pulls, of her particular machine. For the first time, she discovers what best fuels it. The more the appetites are fed, the more they want. So there's also occasion for a little rough trade. The fix is addictive.
If The Bride Stripped Bare reveals little new about nakedness, the stripping is well done. Nikki Gemmell's prose has a wonderful sensuousness. The book is witty in its construction. The "you" with which she characterises her heroine interestingly turns her into an object and, at the same time, forces the reader into the frame. This forceful universalising sometimes grates. But it doesn't detract from a subtle portrait of a modern and rather alienating marriage, in which an intelligent woman has succumbed to an institution neither she, nor her husband, are altogether in tune with.
Lisa Appignanesi is co-author of 'Freud's Women' (Penguin)
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