A cold retelling of the worst taboo
Memoir: The Incest Diary, Anonymous, Bloomsbury, hardback, 144 pages, €14.99
This ticks all the boxes of a bestseller but our reviewer hated what has been dubbed 'the most shocking book of the year'.
The major problem with this book - we'll come to the minor ones later - is that the reader who would like it best is a paedophile. I don't know much about the reading habits of paedophiles. Do they ever take time out from viewing images of children from south-east Asia who are performing acts from some grotesque menu of carnality to satisfy Western male perversions? Do monsters read at all?
What I do know is that if a paedophile happened to read The Incest Diary, he would find much to delight and reassure him. It's not just the brutally explicit sex between a father and his daughter, beginning when she is still a toddler and continuing into her 20s; it's the fact that the girl enjoys the sex, and comes, in fact, to crave and even initiate it.
"A child can't escape," the American author explains. "And later, when I could, it was too late. My father controlled my mind, my body, my desire. I wanted him. I went home. I went back for more."
This is the classic paedophile fantasy. The young victim is not coerced or terrified but a willing partner. Any book that even partly endorses that warped view is dangerous. A book that contains words like: "My father is my secret. That he raped me is my secret. But the secret under the secret is that sometimes I liked it. Sometimes I seduced him." (Does that ring a bell? "I'm going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me." So says Humbert Humbert of the teenage Lolita.)
Bloomsbury, publisher of The Incest Diary, is well aware of the serious charges that can be levelled against it. In a pre-emptive note, publishing director Alexis Kirschbaum admits that it's very uncomfortable when a memoir of abuse turns out to be "a chronicle of pleasure". You can say that again. Somehow, Kirschbaum managed to overcome her unease. Nothing to do with the fact that "the most shocking book of the year" would make headlines and sell a shedload of copies?
Of course not. You see, The Incest Diary is not just any old mucky, prurient book: "It raises complex issues about art, freedom, consent." It comes packaged in a tasteful beige cover, like a slim volume of difficult poetry, to prove that it's not salacious or seeking notoriety. Heaven forbid! As for the style, it is, according to Kirschbaum: "Sparse, poetic, violent, totally without precedent... We have discovered not just a courageous writer, but a gifted one, and her account left me in awe."
Awe is not the first word I would choose. Disgust would be right up there, along with doubt. Conveniently, the author, believed to be a published writer in her forties, chooses not to be identified. "I have changed many specifics," she admits. "But I have not altered the essentials. I ask the reader to respect my wish to remain anonymous."
Why should we? If you are making claims as explosive as these, you deserve to be challenged. At the risk of ruining readers' elevenses, I wonder how Anonymous would explain the fact that she was raped as a three-year-old without sustaining any injuries? If you did a 10th of the vile things described in this book to a grown woman, let alone a small child, she would end up bleeding, with a urinary tract infection, and would need antibiotics and an almost certain stint in hospital.
No such pesky practicalities intrude on these pages. The writing is not the raw, uncooked style we have grown used to in misery memoirs - it is extremely artful. Anonymous, who I'm guessing has done a masters in creative writing, adopts a deliberately unfreaked-out style to describe the most freaking-out things you can possibly imagine.
There is nothing wrong with writing about incest. It's a perennial subject because the potential for love to be warped and soured within the family will never go away.
Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden dealt with sex among siblings in a minor masterpiece of moral and physical claustrophobia. It was startling, but never gratuitous. Some 20 years ago, Kathryn Harrison produced The Kiss, a stunning memoir about her obsessive relationship, as a college student, with her estranged father, a minister. It started a debate about whether the confessional form had gone too far.
How mild and thoughtful The Kiss seems now. In The Incest Diary, horror is piled on shuddering horror. Anonymous recalls how her father would tie her up, shut her in the wardrobe and use a knife on her. I hated reading it. Not because the infliction of pain is so relentless, although it is, but because Anonymous never makes you weep for that little girl she says she once was. It all feels so cold, so calculated.
If someone had sat down to write the publishing sensation of the summer of '17, what would their criteria have been? Well, a) it has to be "real" to satisfy the craving for confessional tales; b) choose the worst taboo of our age - child abuse; c) introduce just enough "Is it? Or isn't it" elements to feed a dinner party debate; d) give it a classy cover so readers feel they're holding something literary and elevated; and e) pick a title that sounds wicked and intriguing, not harrowing and repulsive (The Child Abuse Chronicles, anyone?).
The Incest Diary ticks all those boxes. Anonymous may well go to the top of the bestseller lists, as she surely intended. I do hope not. Something can be true and still not believable. This is a bad book masquerading as a good one.