Here’s a bit of a literary quandary for you: can a book still be good if it deliberately skirts controversy, or does the artificially generated controversy only distract from the other qualities a book may have? I’ve been asking myself this ever since I read Wetlands, and I still don’t know.
Wetlands, the debut novel of Anglo-German TV personality Charlotte Roche, tells the story of eighteen year old school girl Helen Memel. Helen is obsessed with her bodily fluids; her own and others’. She likes sex; she’s had a string of lovers since the age of fifteen. She abhors personal hygiene, though she is meticulous about her body. One morning, while shaving her private parts, she has an accident and ends up on the proctological ward of a hospital, from which she aspires to bring her estranged parents back again.
If this all sounds remarkably clean and innocent, brace yourselves. This book is not for the faint of hearted. There is talk of sperm, shit, blood, spit, vaginal discharge, smegma, snot, earwax, all of which provide endless entertainment to the main character. Helen obsesses over bodily fluids the way the rest of us might watch pornography. She is unapologetic in her fetish and about her sex life. It’s not hard to see where the controversy surrounding this novel came from.
Yet at the same time, at its core, it’s a light-hearted, sweet book. Helen’s habits are filthy, but all the same, she’s endearingly sweet. She enjoys sex with a girlish appetite, unapologetic and frank. In between all the talk of her anal fissure and haemorrhoids, her plot to stave off her parents’ divorce reads not unlike a children’s novel. Helen has a filthy mind but definitely not a filthy soul.
In literature, juxtaposition is a cheap trick to highlight certain themes in your work, and the English major in me doesn’t approve of this, and really, I cannot overstate how incredibly gross this book is. Yet I find it hard to dislike it. Helen’s sweet, comfortable with her own weirdness, and in a world in which so many books are populated with dour men who live in dour worlds, it’s nice so see a woman who knows what she likes and makes no excuses for it, even if she is a total mess.
Roche has stated that the book offers a snide side-eye to the beauty industry, through which women are pressed to think of their bodies not in terms of what is positive about them, but of what can be improved; that our bodies cannot be who they naturally are, but that all smells, colours, bumps and ridges must be removed, be it through excessive dieting or fads like anal bleaching. And the book certainly doesn’t flinch away from other difficult topics, like automutilation, drug abuse and suicide. To rate it as an important book in that way goes too far, but it’s a powerful message to be sure. I’m just not convinced writing about sperm gargling or the lovely things on can find on the seats of public lavatories is the way to go about it.
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting little book. If you’re feeling like reading something a little weird and offhand, give it a go.
But only if you have a strong stomach.