Monday 19 February 2018

Review: Escorts: Between the Sheets by Scarlett O’Kelly

Penguin Ireland,€14.99
Available withfree P&P or by calling 091 709350

On the game: Catherine Deneuve as the middle-class prostitute in the film Belle de Jour
On the game: Catherine Deneuve as the middle-class prostitute in the film Belle de Jour

Eilis O’Hanlon

Scarlett O'Kelly is not her real name. Whether the story she tells is equally fictitious is the real question. Scarlett presents herself as an "ordinary woman" living in small town Ireland, a separated, middle-class mother of three.

She turned to "escort work" when she lost her office job and was finding it difficult to maintain her lifestyle.

"I'm someone who you would comfortably chat to at the school gates -- perhaps you have -- or in the doctor's surgery or while queuing at the post office," says Scarlett in the book.

"I am basically anyone who looks like an attractive, educated woman hitting 40. How I pay my mortgage, fund the children's hobbies and put food on the table may make me unusual, but I hope it doesn't change who I am."

She says she's ordinary. But there aren't that many ordinary women who could secure a book deal with Penguin Ireland, certainly not ones with a recent past as salacious as that described in Between The Sheets.

Then again, there's always been a ready market for books by women prepared to talk dirty, from French feminist Catherine Millet's memoirs of life as a Parisian swinger to German author Charlotte Roche's purposely icky Wetlands to numerous blogs-turned-bestsellers like Girl With A One Track Mind and Belle de Jour.

But it's a curious feature of the genre that each newcomer pitches up as if unique and freshly minted. It's a genre which never acknowledges its own history, thereby allowing each new author to present herself as a daring pioneer.

Scarlett is honest in her own way. She concedes that she had a "natural inclination" for sex work, and might have considered it in less financially distressed circumstances anyway; and she's upfront about liking the attention, despite the risks she's taking with her children's privacy in going public.

Campaigners may have criticised her for encouraging prostitution, but O'Kelly also has every right to tell her own story, especially when there remains a reluctance to admit that many women do this work willingly, don't find it too taxing, are well rewarded, and come out of the experience surprisingly unscathed.

This book makes an important distinction between earning €400 an hour in warm hotel rooms and the street trade as practised by vulnerable women with abusive backgrounds and expensive addictions to maintain.

But she still can't escape the artifice of the form. As readers, we've simply heard it all before. Scarlett's one unique selling point is that she's Irish, but even that doesn't ultimately amount to much, because her recession-busting bawdiness takes place in a soulless nowhere country, a could-be-anywhere land, where the intermittent references to a Catholic heritage feel tacked on way too conveniently.

In any case, her excursions into social commentary are never more than a bridge between increasingly explicit sex scenes, which, implausibly, all seem to go swimmingly.

There's the odd less than perfect lover, and some have weird fetishes (are there really men who like having their testicles kicked?), but mostly her clients are tanned, well-endowed and attentive.

After a while, it starts to read like one of those 1970s romps like Confessions Of A Window Cleaner.

Chapter 29 actually begins with a visit from a plumber, with whom O'Kelly subsequently becomes intimate. It's like the opening scene of every blue movie ever made. Throughout it all she adopts the same relentlessly perky note.

That's the thing about Scarlett. She's not only a Happy Hooker (well, apart from a two-and-a-half-page bout of depression), she also exemplifies another cliché, that of the Whore With A Heart Of Gold.

She wants us to see that the men who paid her are ordinary too, be they "fearful Catholics" or "middle class liberals", and that she was privy to a side to them that their wives never fully appreciate, a lonely vulnerable side which found expression with her. Her observations shouldn't be dismissed, but there's a perfunctory, cut-and-paste quality to them which remains hard to take seriously.

In the end, Between The Sheets reads like a despatch from a subgenre which doesn't have the guts to be out and out erotica but instead conceals its raunchiness coyly behind a veil of cod sociological and pop psychological observations on the state of modern relationships.

Her conclusions in that department are so trite that they would disgrace a woman's weekly, let alone a much-hyped publication from a respectable house.

Basically Scarlett wants her readers to know that men don't seek perfection, just ordinary, warm women who are more sexually open. Women exactly like her in fact. Which is nice. She may even be right, but it's like getting advice on drugs from a dealer.

It's certainly hard to see who will want to be seen reading such a volume, but it can be downloaded on Kindle for more discreet consumption on the Dart. As for those loitering in Easons, flicking through discreetly to find the juicy bits, the pages you're looking for are 22-23, 49-52, 72-74, 80-82, 96-98, 135-136, 160, 193, 204, and 220-221.

Apologies if I missed any, but it got a bit repetitive after a while.

Oh, and try not to bend the spine too much, fellas.

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