Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 26, 2021

O (2021), by Steven Carroll

As I commented on Jennifer’s review of this book at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large:

I know I’m going to have to read this novel, because, well, it’s Steven Carroll and I trust him not to write anything revolting, but I really wish he’d written about something else. The Story of O is such a horrible, horrible book, I really don’t want to revisit it even indirectly.

Wikipedia has a page about The Story of O, but don’t visit it unless you want to know the reasons for my revulsion.  Carroll makes repeated references to whether the book which inspired his story is an erotic novel or porn, but whichever it is The Story of O features explicit descriptions of sadomasochism, dominance and submission.  Like most readers, I have an imagination that lets me ‘see’ what’s happening in a novel, and I wish I’d never read The Story of O.  I’m no prude but the extreme violence and degradation ‘O’ endures for ‘love’ make it unforgettable for all the wrong reasonsCarroll is restrained in his allusions to it, but I knew more than his text was telling me, and I read his novel without ever losing that awareness and with a dread that there might be nastier content to come.

Jennifer hasn’t read The Story of O, and her experience of reading Carroll’s novel is different to mine, and probably closer to what Carroll intended…

Carroll’s novel explores the idea that Anne Cécile Desclos (1907 – 1998), a French journalist and novelist who wrote under the pseudonyms Dominique Aury and Pauline Réage, wrote The Story of O as an unconscious metaphor for the most shameful episode in modern French history: the Nazi Occupation of France in the Second World War.  That is, O’s surrender to degradation is a metaphor for the French surrender in June 1940 and the ensuing partition of France into the Occupied territory in the north and west; and in central and southern France, the pro-Nazi collaborationist state of Vichy under Marshal Philippe Pétain.  In his Notes on a Novel at the end of the book, Carroll writes:

If Story of O had been written in the 1970s and later it wouldn’t have mattered.  But the fact is that Dominique Aury wrote it as a love letter to her lover, publisher Jean Paulham, soon after, in the rain-shadow of the Occuption, when words such as ‘surrender’, ‘submission’, ‘defeat’ and ‘liberation’ had a meaning redolent of an all too recent, shameful past. Everybody was on edge, nerves were jangled, the experience still raw, and to a large extent the populace wanted to put the Occupation behind them.  Repress it.

But the moods and preoccupations of a country, especially at certain pivotal moments, have a way of surfacing through art.  Whether consciously, unconsciously, or a combination of both, art can sometimes mirror the very thing that a country wants to forget. And it increasingly occurred to me that, as unlikely a candidate as it may seem, Story of O was just such a work: one of those cases in which the individual psyche is like the whole society writ large.  (p.301)

While Carroll’s O isn’t biographical fiction, some of the characters and events are based on real life. The novel begins with Dominique Aury’s fury and disgust about the Surrender, and her meeting with her soon-to-be lover, the publisher at Gallimard, Jean Paulham. Amongst other things, we learn that he is also involved in Les Éditions de Minuit the real-life clandestine publisher of books to counter German censorship.  The most famous of these books, Le Silence de la Mer (which I reviewed here) isn’t mentioned, but the underground materials that Dominique delivers at Jean’s instigation would have included it.  But as Carroll explains, the real-life Dominique Aury never did anything as dangerous as the rescue of Pauline Réage, who is an authorial invention.

The Dominique of the novel writes her novel to rekindle the flame of her affair with Jean, who is starting to look at other women, the way he first looked at her.  She also wants to prove to him that women can write sexual fantasies just as men can, just as the Marquise de Sade did.  Her work isn’t intended for publication, but Jean persuades her, and though Gallimard dismisses it as pornographic smut, they find an alternative publisher.  It causes a scandal, and it divides its readers.  Guessing who its anonymous author might be becomes a parlour game, and they even encounter someone claiming to be the author.

The novel loses a bit of impetus as it moves on through the years.  It becomes more of a meditation on the issues it raises: how to be free under a brutal occupation; the hypocrisy of postwar reprisals; what can or might be written by women; whether submission can be an expression of love; May/September relationships; and how authors sometimes reveal more to their readers than they know themselves.

To the reviewer who wrote that this novel explores why the baring of female desire is so appalling, even frightening and that Carroll’s character is most free when defeated and occupied, I say this.  All over Australia we are currently seeing revelations about men’s behaviour towards women, which suggests that—perhaps influenced by the graphic porn which is so readily available—they believe that subjection, domination, submission and violence are acceptable in sexual relationships.  The distress that has been revealed is a clear indication that far too many men are wrong in these beliefs.  So let’s not talk nonsense that normalises and provides justification for them.

is certainly a departure from the Glenroy and T S Eliot novels.  I’m glad I read them first.

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: O
Cover design: gray318
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2021
ISBN: 9781460757314, pbk., 308 pages
Source: Bayside Library



  1. I prefer the T S Eliot and Glenroy novels as well. I am also glad I read ‘O’ before what is unfolding in Australia at present.


    • Indeed! I bet both author and publisher are rueing the timing…

      Liked by 1 person

      • PS By coincidence I’ve just finished reading Baho! (2016) by Burundi-French author Roland Rugero, translated by Christopher Schaefer, which is about an adolescent mute wrongly accused of rape (in circumstances where it’s clear the accusation is false). Given the timing, I’m going to break with my usual practice of reviewing everything I read, it just doesn’t seem appropriate right now.


  2. While I think I’m better than you at rationalising what I read (though reading difficult material can lower my mood), I have so much Carroll to read before this, that probably won’t jump to it.

    There is a brutal rape in Girl, woman, other – it’s not explicitly described in detail and occupies only a few pargraphs, but its ongoing impact on the woman, who was just pubescent when it happened, is made very clear. “Most free when defeated and occupied”? I don’t think so. Does Carroll suggest that or is this the reviewers reading of what he says?


    • I think it’s her reading of it, but *pause because I’m not quite sure* I think it’s extrapolated from what he writes about Dominique feeling ‘free’ during the Occupation (when the nation was subjugated) because she could choose to be brave. Or something like that. It derives from what he says about The Story of O (i.e. her experience of subjugation) being a metaphor for the subjugation of France . So, if the character Dominique in his novel feels ‘free’ under the Occupation because she chooses how to deal with it, and you extend the metaphor, then the character in The Story of O feels ‘free’ being subjugated because she chooses it. Sorry, I’m not going to re-read it to be sure.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fair enough Lisa … I wouldn’t expect you to, but thanks for having a go at explaining why the reviewer saw it that way.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I read The Story of O so long ago that I fortunately can’t remember any of it – I just know I didn’t like it.

    That being said, I just put a reserve on this at the local library to see what I make of it Lisa. I doubt I’ll like it much; I tend to agree with your sentiments in your second last paragraph. Anyway, I’m prepared to take a look! I will let you know what I think in due course!


    • That’s great, I’m glad I haven’t put you off:)


  4. Um. Whether The Story of O was a metaphor or not, like you I’d rather prefer to forget it if I could…


    • Yes.
      If anyone other than Steven Carroll, who’s one of my favourite authors, had written it, I’d have avoided this altogether.
      Sue (WG) has commented that she thinks she’s better at ‘rationalising’ what she reads than I am, and this comment has made me wonder why I retain such vivid images from my reading… I think it may be because I become so absorbed in my books, which I tend to read intensively until I get to the end, that I find myself ‘in’ the book, observing what’s going on but unable to intervene, as in a dream, or as in this case, as in a nightmare. Which is then imprinted in my memory and can be triggered against my will.
      It’s interesting to see the other Sue’s comment that she read The Story of O so long ago that she can’t fortunately remember it. It’s forty years or so since I read it, and yet I can still ‘see’ certain scenes. Why, I wonder, has she been able to blank it from her memory, and I can’t?
      What’s fascinating to me is that, by writing it up as a narrative, I’ve learned to control my memory of the one truly traumatic thing that’s happened in my life (the day my small son almost drowned when he was blown off a pier in a gale), so that I don’t keep reliving it night after night whenever the wind blows. Yet it’s narrative in books that creates these unwanted images in my memory…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What an interesting discussion Lisa, you’ve made me think about why this might happen. I’m not sure – I have had (unfortunately) several major traumas in my life, so I wonder if this made an unpleasant book have less impact on me? Perhaps i had built up some strange sort of immunity! I will get the Steven Carroll from the library tomorrow and see what I think – I rather hope now it doesn’t bring back memories of The Story of O after all! (chuckle)


    • It’s fascinating… I think I might be a neuro-physicist in my next life.


      • Yes but I can read it as a woman who had to put up with molestation and harrassment by men in the workplace for decades! So many women have experienced this over and over again as we all know from the current demonstrations. So I can read this as a victim of such things. I think it’s worth acknowledging that for some women books like this may be a difficult read. On the other hand, I may be fairly immune to this type of literature precisely because I have become so used to objectification by men. Interesting.


        • I hope it doesn’t trigger anything unpleasant for you, Sue.


          • Not at all Lisa. So far I’m enjoying it!

            Liked by 1 person

    • To be honest, Sue, I have wondered for some time whether that’s part of it for me too. I had a major trauma in my mid 30s, and I’ve been wondering for some time now whether that has immunised me in some way. I can, of course, still feel emotion, still cry – such as over my parents’ deaths over the last year which has been so so sad for me – but I do feel there’s a part of my brain that has been changed in some way from what it was like in my 20s and early 30s. It’s like I had to work so hard to cope with that trauma, that that work flows over into other things I face (personally or in other forms).


      • That’s interesting Sue! It seems to be well known now that trauma affects our brains permanently. We’ve both been through a bit, hey?

        I have read this and I have to say I absolutely loved it! A thoroughly enjoyable read, best novel I have read in a while now.

        There’s no graphic sex in it… the description of life under occupied France is wonderful, the romance is beautifully depicted, and I think Carroll has written an impressive, very moderately erotic novel.

        These dark impulses are within all of us, and I much prefer them in Carroll’s capable hands rather than in online porn which can be so damaging. Carroll at least handles these things with great delicacy and restraint.

        I’d be inclined to give this four stars Lisa! A lovely, romantic novel!


        • I’m relieved that it’s not triggering anything for you.
          For me, just revisiting this post is making me ‘see’ scenes from the original novel.


          • I loved it Lisa! Wonderfully romantic! What a shame you can’t enjoy it due to reading the original. I wonder how you would have found it if you had never read the book it’s based on?


        • How interesting Sue. You have inspired me about this novel. I’m fascinated by occupied France for a start. And delicacy and restraint re dark impulses sounds good to me.


          • I’d be interested to hear how you find it Sue – Carroll’s interest is in the relationship of the two main characters outside of that infamous room, and it’s a relationship of some tenderness and affection. His prose is lovely.

            If you find it, there is one paragraph where he talks about the importance of humour (laughter) in a budding relationship and it’s so wonderfully true!

            I generally found it a rather charming book!

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved it Lisa! I wonder how different your reaction might have been had you not read the original novel it’s based on?


  7. I loved it Lisa! I wonder how different your reaction to it might have been had you not read the original novel it’s based on?


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