Wetlands

Book by Charlotte Roche

Annotation by Marya Summers

A novel published in German in 2008 and translated in English in 2009, Wetlands tells the story of 18-year old Helen Memel and her hemorrhoid operation.  As the narrator, Memel tells her story – that of a hedonist punk who loves to shock people – the first-person present tense gives the story an immediacy, but even more, the character’s willingness to share her most private moments takes the reader to a sometimes uncomfortable intimacy. Memel talks to the reader without shame, offering graphic details of her delicate condition, her unapologetic sexuality, and her idiosyncratic hygiene practices. The reader is provided gruesomely vivid scenes such as Memel’s creation, insertion and disposal of homemade tampons as she defies conventional wisdom about sanitary practices. The scenes and details provided, such as her plunging her healing bottom down on the hospital bed’s brake in order to rip open her wounded anus so that she can get her divorced parents to the hospital so they can reconcile, are always frank and frequently shocking. During her stay in the hospital, the reader becomes just as acquainted with Memel’s emotional state, which is more desperate and painful than the gaping wound in her bottom. The wound becomes symbolic of Memel’s ability to withstand the injury caused by her parents’ break-up, her father’s remoteness, and her mother’s suicidal depression.

I chose this book because it was recommended to me several times when I would discuss the negative reactions readers had to the sexual parts of my memoir. Roche has been much praised and her book compared to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Roche’s frank, non-exploitive and highly graphic scenes were so powerful that at times I had to put the book down until the nausea they induced subsided. I’d never read anything like this from a female perspective, and since I am very receptive to discussions about sexuality, I was surprised that the novel was repulsive and shocking to me. It was only in hindsight that I was able to appreciate what the graphic scenes contributed to the story. As I read, I was so engaged in the physicality, that it was difficult for me to be engaged intellectually. It was a good experience and an extreme example of how description of bodily functions can be difficult for readers and how that can be used to mirror the character’s emotional state and provoke a reaction from readers.

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