Shire Hell by Rachel Johnson - review by Tom Fleming

Tom Fleming

‘Call Me Sukie’

Bad Sex Winner 2008

Shire Hell



Here are most of the shortlisted passages for this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Further entries are likely to come in yet, but for now Literary Review would like to thank the reviewers and readers who have drawn our attention to these excerpts.

The purpose of the award, inaugurated in 1993, is to highlight, and thereby possibly to discourage, redundant or poorly written passages of a sexual nature in fiction. Indeed, perhaps this tongue-in-cheek prize is having an effect. Previous nominees with books out this year have failed to come up with the goods. Sebastian Faulks, who has been shortlisted several times before, notably did not include a sex scene in Devil May Care. Salman Rushdie, another former shortlistee, came up with nothing apart from a few choice phrases and words (one of the most memorable of which was ‘unguiculation’, or the ‘art of using the nails to enhance the act of love’). Julian Fellowes, again another former shortlistee, happened to have one of his characters mention the Bad Sex Awards in his novel Past Imperfect; there is a sex scene in the book, but it is actually quite convincing.

One author with a track record (having been nominated three times previously) who did deliver this year was John Updike. He has written some very persuasive sex scenes in his time, but in his latest novel, The Widows of Eastwick, he has not done himself justice:

She said nothing then, her lovely mouth otherwise engaged, until he came, all over her face. She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin. He had wanted to cry out, sitting up as if jolted by electricity as the spurts, the deep throbs rooted in his asshole, continued, but he didn’t know what name to call her. ‘Mrs Rougement’ was the name he had always known her by. God, she was antique, but here they were. Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea. The rhythmic relentless shushing returned to their ears. She laid her head on his pillow and seemed to want to be kissed. Well, why not? It was his jism.

Having got rid of it, there was an aftermath of sorrow in which he needed to be alone; but there was no getting rid of her. ‘Call me Sukie,’ she said, having read his mind. ‘I sucked your cock.’

‘You sure did. Thanks. Wow.’

What is undeniable, however, is that it is difficult to write good sex. At least Updike has had success in the past. The other author on this year’s shortlist who has been nominated before is the bestselling Paulo Coelho. His latest novel, Brida, is about a young Irish woman on a voyage of discovery:

Brida surrendered herself entirely. The forces of the world were penetrating her five senses and these were becoming transformed into an overwhelming energy. They lay down on the ground between the rock, the precipice and the sea, between the life of the seagulls flying up above and the death of the stones beneath. And they began, fearlessly, to make love, because God protects the innocent.

They no longer felt the cold. Their blood was flowing so fast in their veins that she tore off some of her clothes and so did he. There was no more pain; knees and back were pressed into the stony ground, but that became part of their pleasure, completing it. Brida knew that she was close to orgasm, but it was still a very remote feeling, because she was entirely connected to the world: her body and Lorens’ body mingled with the sea and the stones, with life and death. She remained in that state for as long as possible, while some part of her was vaguely conscious that she was doing things she had never done before. What she was feeling, though, was the bringing together once more of herself and the meaning of life; it was a return to the garden of Eden; it was the moment when Eve was reabsorbed into Adam’s body and the two halves became Creation.

Less spiritual, and more spirit world, is the following passage, from the rather more literary James Buchan, whose enjoyable ghost story The Gate of Air contains this encounter between a man and a pretty ghost:

She stood in the afternoon light, as if the light was coming from her own body, from her breast and eyes and where her dress had been […] Jim ached with her nakedness. His arms and legs were as lifeless as fallen branches. He understood that love was of a power and force of a different order from anything else beneath the sky, and could demolish not merely family relations or notions of right and wrong but also what was real and what was not. Jim’s world had been knocked a little out of its axis, and would not be restored.

She turned to him. Her face had taken on her nudity or rather had shed a veil it wore for the world. She said: ‘Perhaps you’d like to take off your shorts.’

‘Do I have to?’

‘I think you do.’

He felt that if he touched her breast she might be brought down to earth. He touched the round breast and hard bead at its tip. He felt something else fall from her, like a garment, as she leaned one knee on the bed. Light billowed out of her, and warmth in damp gusts as if from a garden after a rainstorm. She did not seem to be a woman, but something altogether stronger and sweeter. A darkness engulfed him, like a wave breaking over him in the sea shallows, and when he opened his stinging eyes he saw her pretty face before him.

‘What about your husband?’

‘Sod him.’ She seemed to have forgotten she had one.

The mixture of purple prose and bathetic dialogue makes uneasy reading, but what metaphors there are, at least, do not stick out. More egregious metaphors – one of the hallmarks of bad sex – abound in several other of the shortlisted passages. From Rachel Johnson’s Shire Hell:

JM’s hands are caressing my breasts, now, and I am allowed to kiss him back, but not for very long, for he breaks off, to give each breast in turn the attention it deserves. As he nibbles and pulls with his mouth, his hands find my bush, and with light fingers he flutters about there, as if he is a moth caught inside a lampshade.

Almost screaming after five agonizingly pleasurable minutes, I make a grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside, but he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop. I find myself gripping his ears and tugging at the locks curling over them, beside myself, and a strange animal noise escapes from me as the mounting, Wagnerian crescendo overtakes me.

From Isabel Fonseca’s intriguing first novel, Attachment:

He placed her carefully like a large terra-cotta urn and skilfully set about his work, as concentrated as a specialist restorer focused on her intricate finish, as if she wasn’t even there. A tug here and the top of her dress fell to her waist. He tilted her head back to get under her chin, and his thumbs on her jaw and her throat and her chest moved swiftly, smoothing the skin as if it was quick-drying clay.

[… He] kissed her about her ears. She didn’t know about having her ears kissed – how it pulled like a drawstring threaded right through you, teasing, tightening, bringing you in. With each nuzzling kiss the line extended over other parts of her body, gathering into a new constellation of improbable shapeliness – Archer, Boar, Mermaid – another point from among her scatter of solitary stars.

Sashenka by Simon Montefiore, another first novel, should be mentioned for its ill-judged animal metaphor (‘And they started again, another shuddering tournament. When it was over, they had become creatures of the sea, their bodies as sleek and wet and lithe as leaping dolphins’), while Kathy Lette’s To Love, Honour and Betray contains this cracker:

I kissed his mouth ravenously, devouring his neck, earlobes, chest. He broke free with muscular ease, unhooked my bra with composed expertise, found my nipple and flicked his tongue back and forth until it went hard. His towel fell away. Sebastian’s erect member was so big I mistook it for some sort of monument in the centre of a town. I almost started directing traffic around it. He rolled me sideways on to my back and, in one flowing motion, my tracksuit and panties were down, lassoing one ankle. His fingers edged up my thigh and then plunged inside me. My legs yielded to the weight of his body and I wrapped them around his hips, tugging him against me with a pang of hunger I hadn’t felt for so long.

Other shortlistees include Russell Banks, for a passage of deepest purple in The Reserve; Ann Allestree, for Triptych of a Young Wolf; and Alastair Campbell (who famously wrote erotic stories for Forum magazine in his earlier years) for All in the Mind, though whether he has written bad sex, or just a good representation of bad sex, remains to be seen.

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