Transgressions is such a deeply unsettling novel, it has completely revised my opinion of the author. I discovered Sarah Dunant’s novels with Mapping the Edge,( 1999) when it was first published, and I went on to read her historical novels and reviewed them on this blog: The Birth of Venus, (2003); In the Company of the Courtesan, 2006, and Sacred Hearts, (2009). I enjoyed them as light fiction with a feminist slant on women’s choices during the Renaissance.
But Transgressions (1997) is a most unpleasant book. I can’t discuss it without spoilers.
It’s the story of a Czech-British translator called Elizabeth Skvorecky, who is living alone in a large Victorian house in London since she separated from her husband about a year ago. She is working on a trashy Czech novel which features gratuitous violence against women. She is offended by the trashiness and takes it upon herself to rewrite the prose, and she adds to the storyline in order to ‘improve’ it. In doing so, she becomes engaged in its plot and finds some of its sadomasochistic scenes erotic. I admit it: I skipped over these scenes.
At the same time, someone is gaining access to her house when she is out, and messing with her mind. This person removes her favourite CDs, sets up a dining table laid for two, and rigs her stereo system to start playing her favourite tune when she comes home. Dunant does a convincing job of muddying the waters: for a while it’s not clear whether Elizabeth’s ex-husband is responsible, whether it is a stray lover that she takes up with in a half-hearted way, or whether it is her memory or her subconscious at work. She contacts the police but they don’t take her seriously, and although an atheist she also consults a woman cleric because she thinks it might be a poltergeist.
It is at this point that this novel becomes in itself transgressive. When the interloper is revealed as a stalker who arrives in her bedroom to rape her, Elizabeth decides, despite her panic, to submit in order to survive. She has heard that this advice is given to rape victims: surrender can be a means of surviving the ordeal without violence. But Elizabeth does more than merely submit, and I found this sequence of events with its hints of eroticism repugnant in the extreme. Without going into details, the scene suggests that rape is about sex, when it’s not, it’s always about power.
I cannot imagine what this author was trying to achieve with this novel. It’s not going back to the Op Shop, it’s going in the bin.
Author: Sarah Dunant
Publisher: Time Warner UK, 1997
Source: Op Shop, and I’m glad I only wasted $2 on it.