Siri Ousdahl’s Constraint is mature literary fiction at its finest, masterfully conceived and exquisitely written, unflinching, dark, disquieting, boldly amoral, never judging its characters or coddling its readers. This story of dubious consent is handled with a seriousness seldom encountered in the BDSM subgenre, a refreshing frankness, trenchant observation turned acutely—and often painfully—inward. Safe, sane, and consensual this is not; dazzling, mind-expanding, and addictive it most certainly is.
It would have been easy (and no doubt commercially tempting to a less-imaginative writer) to turn this story into a two-bit pulp thriller, the like of which we’ve all watched or read a hundred times before: a beautiful woman is kidnapped by an eccentric and conveniently well-to-do admirer who holds her prisoner in an isolated compound somewhere in the wilds of Wyoming. Eventually the classic signs of Stockholm syndrome manifest themselves, and the woman stays with her kidnapper, even when afforded the opportunity to leave. It’s a classic case of what John Norman referred to as ‘captor bonding’, titillating grist for yet another episode of Criminal Minds or a drearily predictable Lifetime TV movie. That route certainly would have been easy and obvious. Thankfully, Ousdahl is no ordinary writer.
The beautiful woman in question is a gifted and successful artist, Linnea, who specializes in fantastically twisted sculptures, binding dissimilar woods together with metal rings, creating torturous, yet often surprisingly beautiful unities out of contradiction and chaos—does this sound like an elaborate literary symbol or what??? Linn is no Mary Sue; she’s hardly perfect, a loner who isn’t particularly missed after her disappearance, albeit strong-willed, driven, independent, and nobody’s pushover. The kidnapper, Alex, does cleave more closely to genre stereotype, wealthy but not impossibly so, a long-ago casual acquaintance of Linn’s who has obsessed about her for ten years, and now commands the means to make his twisted fantasies come true. He is, of course, involved in some vague form of international finance, which affords him the opportunity to travel. Alex has explored the kink scene on three or four continents. He is accustomed to getting what he wants where sufficient cash buys blind-eyed complicity and unwavering discretion.
Yet beneath this broadly-outlined mass-market paperback blurb of a plot is something unexpectedly original. The material is handled with surprising seriousness and magnificent poise. The characters are psychologically complex and almost always interesting—more often than not because we don’t agree with them, or like the way their minds work, or approve of the actions they may or may not choose to take. Ousdahl does not treat her characters like pawns on a chessboard. She consistently refuses to judge them, or manipulate the reader through them. The author skirts the morality of the situation—a hint of doubt flitting through Alex’ mind, a word caught on the tip of Linn’s tongue—but never confronts those issues head on. (This may well infuriate some readers.)
In the past I have complained about writers casually flirting with darkness, psychologically unprepared for the horror and ugliness they awaken in themselves. Here, at last, is a fearless fiction; an author who not only embraces the darkness, but ties it up, bends it over, and makes it their willing slave.