Desire: A Reckoning by Jessie Cole. Text. 272pp. $34.99.
When I read Jessie Cole's last memoir Staying (Text, 2018), I felt emotionally eviscerated by her prose. Cole writes with a simultaneous tenderness and directness which places difficult emotions centre on the page, and forces the reader to confront the complexity of our inner lives head on.
In Staying, Cole wrote about the tragedy her family endured, losing both her sister and father to suicide, decades apart. In Desire, those same themes of grief and loss are interwoven with her fragmented thoughts on sex, romantic love, and as the title suggests, desire.
These are not easy topics to cover in a literary memoir without erring towards the salacious. There is an expectation from readers that books about sex will be sexy. But Desire is not a traditional memoir, nor does it align with expectations of literary explorations of sex.
This is a memoir that is haunting and harrowing at times, sweet and endearing at others. It unveils sex and intimacy as the awkward, confusing, exhilarating, stressful, life-affirming and at-times depressing parts of human life that they are.
The book is written as a series of vignettes, captured in a semi-chronological order and grouped within parts that are loosely thematically linked. If that sounds a little vague, it's because the structure of this book is just that - but rather than feeling disjointed, the prose flows smoothly, wrapping the reader into Cole's thoughts and emotions as she moves through her own emotional and physical journeys.
Cole situates the reader firmly in her unique circumstances. There is much about her life that would be intriguing to explore from any angle. As well as the loss of her close family members, Cole has grown up in an unusual home in the forest in northern New South Wales: her house is a series of separate buildings built among trees and nature. Her two grown sons live with her and their grandmother, and their partners.
It's an unusual set up, and one that Cole describes as being both liberating - free from the unending flux of modern life - and isolating at times. There are days at a time where she may not speak to anyone outside of her immediate family.
So to explore her sexuality and desire in the context of heterosexual romantic love is not an easy prospect - there aren't many single men around. To add another complication, Cole's body suffers at times extreme physical responses to the prospect of sex, making it hard for her to engage in flirtation without twitches, swelling, rashes, and any number of other symptoms appearing.
A different writer may have used these two key factors to write a humorous collection of anecdotes about the difficulties of dating as a single mother in the modern world. There's enough material there for plenty of punch lines and slapstick moments.
But what Cole gives us in Desire is so much more than that. Through her thoughtful and precise prose, Cole shares an intimate window into a key relationship, one that is complex for a number of reasons.
This turbulent inner journey is set against the backdrop of a physical world that is tormented by floods and fire, uncertainty and destruction.
As she grapples with her feelings for a man who is at times distant and cold, Cole's world is being washed away by floodwaters. As her relationship begins to unravel, fires ravage the forest and threaten her life. As things gradually fall apart, the world slams into the pandemic.
Cole weaves these narratives together, deftly bringing to life a core message that shows that despite our habitual self-absorption, human life and relationships are finite in the face of our huge natural environments which are dying around us.
Desire is both easy to read, and difficult to endure. Cole writes with such honesty and openness that at times it is painful to witness her hurt, the vulnerability she shows in her relationship, and the incredibly fallible nature of human behaviour.
As a society, we're not used to women sharing their experiences of heterosexual sex with such transparency - no candles and soft music to dim the reality of what is often an unedifying experience.
But Cole's sheer command of language captures your attention so well that pages virtually fly past. I devoured this book from the first page, completely entranced.
Despite the unusual structure of the book, there is a pace and cadence to the writing, and a sense of completion at the end, even without an actual clear ending. Cole has shared that she wrote this book almost in real time, and that sense of immediacy is part of what creates the momentum that drives the reader through the story.
This is a book to read voraciously the first time, and slowly the second, and perhaps even slower the third, so its many layers can be genuinely absorbed.
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