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Published 16th Oct 2011
Last issue, I discussed Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and its ability to still cause a stir. I have always loved books that spark controversy. Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, first published in 2009, is no exception. The Daily Mail described it as ‘profoundly unsettling’ and Look Magazine cited it as ‘this year’s most controversial read’. I was desperate to get my hands on it. But everyone has their limits and when I attempted to read it, at the tender age of seventeen, I threw the book down in disgust. At twenty, I decided I was ready to handle the novel which so boldly breaks down every sexual and hygienic taboo, whilst, also questioning the stereotypical standardisation of the female body. In fact, questioning is too weak. Roche holds up the archetype and takes an axe to it.
The protagonist, eighteen year old Helen Memel, narrates the story from her hospital bed. The reason for her incarceration? ‘An intimate shaving accident.’ Wetlands is utterly gross – ridiculously so. Helen states, ‘Hygiene’s not a major concern of mine’ and this couldn’t be a more accurate description of her character. Roche describes, in painstaking detail, homemade tampons, poo, vaginal hygiene (or lack of) and, not to forget, all types of sordid and extraordinary sexual practises. Some scenes were so graphic I actually thought the book jacket should carry a sick bag inside it. For example, Helen rips her own anal wound with the pedal of a hospital bed.
This leads me on to the part of the book I found most troubling. Helen is obsessed with reuniting her long divorced parents. However impressive her sexual exploits are, and however revolutionary her hygienic concerns may be, the story becomes a little sad. Helen begins to sound more like a little girl crying for help, than a sexually liberated heroine.
However, Wetlands is an interesting read, as the Guardian stated, ‘If you ever wondered what you’d be like if you weren’t shy, polite, sexually repressed and constrained by modern standards of hygiene, this may be the book for you.’ Roche herself, in an interview with Philip Oltermann, states that, ‘[She] wanted to write about the female body in a way that was funny and entertaining but also sexy.’ The mixture of the somewhat gross facts about women: we bleed, we defecate, and we don’t always keep ourselves squeaky clean and the overtly sexual is interesting. I liked the idea of women not just being a sexy image in a magazine, but real people, and if you sleep with them you are getting the whole deal – haemorrhoids and all. I just don’t think that Wetlands truly delivers its message, as the narrator ends up sounding as if she is trapped by her promiscuity and using everything she can as a desperate attempt to reconcile her broken family. So, read Wetlands if you’re after a sexy and sickening story, just don’t expect it all to pull all its punches. And it really is graphic, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.