Sunday, June 7, 2015

Review of "Katie in Love" by Chloe Thurlow

It is the clothes that cover us that stir desire for what lies beneath . . . A girl in primitive times was the victim of male lust and the guile required to survive and flourish is the mask she subconsciously wears today. Love is war, and clothes are our armour . . .

Being naked for a woman isn’t the same as it is for a man; our clothes acquire different associations. We don’t dress in clothes, we masquerade in the robes of contrivance: too tight, too small, the contours outlining shapes and displaying slivers of flesh like promises, like the trailers for a film. Nudity is a logical progression.

from Katie in Love

Chloe Thurlow clearly enjoys being a girl—and her readers are all the more richly enlightened for it. Katie in Love is Thurlow’s sixth erotic novel, albeit her first (and I would have to say quite auspicious) venture in the realm of independent publishing. It is also a masterpiece on many levels; a romance that transcends the surly bonds of genre convention; a trenchant novel of ideas that skillfully entertains; an acutely-observed comedy of manners in which even the shallow characters are imbued with a certain sympathetic depth; a classic Bildungsroman (novel of education) with clever nods to Herman Hesse, Anais Nin, Vladimir Nabokov, Albert Camus, Georges Bataile and George du Maurier, the creator of Svengali. Thurlow seems to have taken Mahler’s notion of the symphony to heart, ingeniously applying it to a work of literature that is “like the world, containing everything.” If this is “erotic romance”, it is erotic romance with an awe-inspiring intelligence.

And what is it that turns a work of smart, broadly appealing fiction into “erotica”? The author and editor M. Christian says that erotica is fiction in which the author “does not blink” or turn away with distaste or discomfort when it comes time to describe the sex act. An amorist at heart, Thurlow has, for all practical purposes,  given her readers an accessible, first-rate literary novel that “does not blink”; a work in which sex is treated as an essential element of a compelling story, not as some unpleasant afterthought or demeaning literary chore. “Erotica” the eponymous narrator tells us:

is an untapped well of human mystery and potential, the seam of gold hidden below the fault lines of a culture that imposes limitations on our true nature. If erotic writing is to be regarded as literature, the taste and cadence of the words must embrace the senses, ignite the passions. The emotion is integral to the story. Readers must be stripped naked and led to a warm bath perfumed by sex. They must feel as they dress the softness of silk and the chafe of leather. Each description is a portrait so fresh and vivid they can hear the adagio slap of flesh against flesh, the rattle of chains, the snap of the whip, the sound of one hand clapping against willing buttocks.

Readers should be inspired to seek in their lovers new erogenous places, the enchantment of roll play, masks, ball gags and bonds. In the heat of the night when you allow the brain to rest. the body lives a life of its own . . .

Erotica holds up the mirror to a society where those things damned and outlawed are secretly desired. The erotic explores human extremes, lost love, impossible love, innocence and purity mingled with decadence and debauchery. All human fears become clearer analysed under the microscope of erotica. As I keep telling mother, erotica is about feeling, not fucking.

At first glance, a basic description of the plot is not especially promising: A handsome physician with a clouded romantic past hooks up on New Year’s Eve with an attractive, if slightly self-absorbed writer of erotic fiction. The doctor is a dedicated do-gooder, working in the Third World with the poorest of the poor, and he must shortly return to his frontier practice after a short holiday in London. The sex is better than good, and there is clearly a spark between these two—or, at least, the heroine thinks there might be. But, of course, there are obstacles, both real and imagined, trivial and serious, to that proverbial happily-ever-after, and therein lies the tale. 

This could easily serve as the framework for almost any potboiler romance—I sometimes suspect that certain authors keep a template on their computers in lieu of an outline, making it fast and easy to fill in a set of blanks, different names and slightly altered details here and there to suit. It’s the way such basic plot-skeletons are fleshed out that, in the end, makes the difference between the merely amusing and the genuinely enlightening, the disposable and the indispensable, the generic remainder and the future classic; ultimately separates the hackish has-been from the undisputed mistress of her craft.

And—wowzer!—is Chloe Thurlow ever the latter! This is highly original storytelling of breathtaking assurance and awesome craft. Especially impressive is the way the author integrates essential backstory into a highly-elaborate, almost symphonic structure, gradually revealing her character’s pasts in a kind of grand, sweeping arc —wholly visible only at the end—expertly overlaying and bridging the narrative of the here-and-now. (I was reminded of those massive, but always tuneful, late-romantic symphonies, say, Mahler’s  3rd or 7th, Bruckner’s 4th, 7th, or 8th.).  And yet again, as in any well-conceived symphony, the intimate phrases, the solo passages and moments for small ensemble are as deliciously memorable and moving as the mightiest tutti.

There is no forced conflict here, no contrived melodrama. Katie’s self-doubt may be de rigueur in the genre, but this is not the shallow, formulaic wool-gathering of the typical romantic heroine fresh from central-stereotype casting. For once, we are treated to genuine introspection. This author respects her characters—and herself— too much to treat them like mere ex machina plot facilitators or pawns—and she gives her supporting players a chance to shine as well, portraying them as real people with real passions and real things to say, rather than convenient constructs, employed to inject odious or disagreeable alternate points of view into the story, thus eschewing preachiness and propaganda—the conjoined-twin buzzkills of otherwise-intelligent storytelling   

Thurlow’s writing is very much like her main character;  moody—by turns melancholy and reflective—beautiful, sensuous and cerebral. This is “writer-ly” writing to be sure, the sort that stirs serious critical buzz and garners shelffuls of prestigious literary awards—or would if life were fair. Not that there isn’t a good deal of authorial absolute certainty here—the sort of “let me dazzle you, dear reader” assertions brooking no contradiction that judges for those awards seem so thoroughly to adore. One sometimes gets the sense that Katie is as much the author’s thinly veiled personal  avatar as her creature. And yet, there is a depth to all Thurlow's characters—a feat in itself—but, even more impressively, a sophistication—a real, complex dimensionality—to the world they inhabit, a compelling richness that transcends the banal mechanics of genre scene-setting.

And what a world it is! There’s grit as well as glamour here; a hefty dose of moral complexity to go with the simple thrills of lust, a certain seriousness to balance these lovers’ candy-floss flirtations with all their delightfully glib sweet nothings. They are not so blinded by love as to be willfully ignorant of the turmoil that surrounds them. They delve the issues of the day, discuss geo-politics and macro-economics, lament the cancerous inequality in a society grown so rich that it can no longer see the poor; the clueless high-rise-dwelling haves and the hustling ant-like have-nots below, so far apart that one can never truly comprehend the life of the other. The author does not blink at the painful contradictions in her own heroine’s heart, feeling guilty about her own privilege, but also helpless in the face of need she has never been encouraged to consider.

Things come, more or less, to a conventional head; the characters arrive at a cusp and must decide what to do with the rest of their lives. At first glance, the leisurely leave-taking of the penultimate chapters feels like a let-down after what has gone before, the tying up of all the loose strands of the narrative in a bow that seems overly elaborate. Yet, without this dreamlike bridge, the ending itself might have seemed too abrupt, too pat. In retrospect, it is just right. Along the way the author seems to play a set of elaborate variations—something like one of J.S. Bach’s mind-bending masterpieces for the harpsichord—her deft fingers gently pressing the keys of our imagination until we can only groan with delight.

As the stunning—and stunningly clever—heroine of Katie in Love reminds us, the great 20th-century English literary critic Cyril Connolly once said “whenever you start writing a book, you must set out to write a masterpiece . . .”

In this, Chloe Thurlow has surely succeeded.

Passionately recommended!


  1. It is hard to describe my feelings, beyond mere pleasure, on reading this thoughtful review, except to say that it encourages me to get on with the new novel with the the understanding that my analysis of contemporary culture, capitalism and politics through an older woman/younger man sub-dom romance set in Long Island and New York will not be met with total horror. More than that, that erotica as a genre is all the more richer when writers feel free to be experimental, literary, lyrical and intelligent knowing that there is an audience for their work.

    1. Bravo TAS and bravo Chloe. Here's to challenging readers with the extraordinary.