Full disclosure: I am a Nikki Gemmell fan and have read three of her previous novels including The Bride Stripped Bare, Cleave and Shiver. So when TLC Book Tours offered me the opportunity to review Gemmell’s novel With My Body I jumped at the chance.
Gemmell is one of those writers who somehow seems to burrow into the very heart of things and her stories – mostly about (at least those I’ve read) complicated, messy, consuming love – always seem to make me nod my head in agreement. Yeah – that’s right, Nikki. It’s just like that.
The unnamed narrator in With My Body is at a cross-roads in her life. Married to Hugh, she’s fallen into a sort of endless to-do list life, a never-ending cycle of “wellies and Range Rovers, school runs and Sunday church.” Three young sons keep her busy and although she’s grateful for the life she has, she also feels “infected with sourness.” Motherhood, for her, is a complex state of being, full of “richness…depletion…incandescence…despair aand loneliness.” I hear you, sister.
She loves her husband, but they haven’t had sex for two years and the truth is, she’d rather be “celibate from now on.” Besides, their marriage is bound by an unspoken agreement that they’ll never split up and are “in this together, for life.”
Sounds like fun, eh?
With Your Body is really two stories. In one, the second person narrator dutifully fulfills her obligations as wife and mother, but the spark is gone. In another, we see her back in Australia first at age 11, coping with adolescence and a single father about to be remarried and then, slightly older, 14 perhaps, experimenting with sex with a teacher and then slightly older again, 17ish – estranged from her father and the stepmother who turns out not to be all that happy in the role. It’s at this juncture that she meets Tol. He consumes her thoughts:
That night the memory of him, all of it, soaked through you, like smoke; in your hair, your clothes, in the pores of your skin. The memory of his fingers, his desk, his dog, his hand on the gearstick, his waiting house.
The sky has released its payload at last. Rain pummels the tin roof. You open the canvas flaps, fling them up and breathe in the earth as you lie on your stomach on the pillow, and watch.
Your sky, his sky.
The only thing you have in common, and you are caught.
The relationship between the narrator and Tol eventually becomes sexual. She becomes “cracked open into womanhood” under Tol’s patient tutelage. And so the two pass the summer. It is this affair that shapes her and, in some ways, spoils her for the men who come later – including her husband.
While I wouldn’t exactly call With My Body erotica, it is certainly erotically charged. It’s not meant, I don’t think, to titillate though. The second person narration puts the reader in the driver’s seat, however, and therefore we experience what the narrator does. Sometimes it had the desired effect.
I was more interested in the older version of the narrator, though – the wistful, dissatisfied, woman who sees the “signs of slippage everywhere.”
Your body thickening after its quicksilver years of slenderness, finally you have lost control of it. Your metabolism is slowing, you cannot keep the weight off. Hair is growing in places it shouldn’t be, with vigour – the only vigour in your life it seems. You are tired, so tired, constantly.
I got this woman. I didn’t have a Tol in my life, but I did have a life filled with abandon and abundant sexual appetite. I understood her longing to recapture the woman she was before she became a wife and mother and her journey felt authentic to me. I mean, who doesn’t wonder “what if?” When the narrator decides to leave England and return to Australia, she can’t resist revisiting the place where she and Tol spent that one incredible summer. She goes there, really, to find him – both literally and metaphorically. The past, it turns out, is not so easy to reclaim.
If I have any quibbles with the book, they are minor. I love the way Gemmell writes, although I wasn’t totally enamoured with the second person narration in this instance. Curious choice and I’d love to know why she made it. (Ms. Gemmell, if you pop by – I’d love to have your thoughts!)
Thanks to TLC for the opportunity to read the book and share my thoughts on this tour. I’ll be talking about another Gemmell novel, I Take You, in January.