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by Barbara Bell
Simon & Schuster, January 2002
300 pages
ISBN: 0684870355

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Believe it or not, there can be minuscule imperfections attendant on living in the Antipodes; not many, I grant you, but some. One of the few downsides is that our northern hemisphere peers usually have the benefit of an earlier release date for new books. To counterbalance that, we in the southern hemisphere can usually find out a bit more about an author in the intervening time between releases, especially if it is a first time author. One has to be unlucky not to find at least one interview to cast light on the workings of the mind of the writer and just what experiences that particular creator has endured in life to produce a novel. Not so, alas, with Barbara Bell. All I could find out about her was that she is a writer/ composer living in the United States and that this is her first novel. I hope that if Ms. Bell produces another tale, interviewers will have published lots more about her.

Had I purchased this book in order simply to read for pleasure, I doubt I would have persevered with it beyond about page thirty. One could say it is, to put it mildly, confrontational. It involves sado-masochism, prostitution, lesbian love, slavery brutality and degradation. This would, in the normal course of events. have made me discard it, but I had to review it so I kept on going - and was extremely glad I had done so.

Beth (one of the heroine's many names) was an abused child. She and her brother Vin were brought up in very poor circumstances by the woman they called Mama until the latter's death by fire. Beth finds herself in a five year loveless marriage with dog man Jeremy, whom she had met when in hospital because of what she thought was an operation for appendicitis - which left her with an ugly scar on the left side of her abdomen. Now a best selling author named Clarisse Broder, Beth decides her only path to freedom and a new life is to contact her pimp, Ben, from when she was a prostitute, and buy new identity papers from him. Not a wise move, since Ben once more enslaves her and subjects her to the same kind of torture and degradation she had experienced five years previously prior to her escape from him.

Again seeking her freedom from Ben, Beth attempts suicide by jumping off a bridge. The attempt fails but gives her courage to flee her old life and Ben. She is also fleeing policeman Bates who is attempting to solve the murder of Beth's former lover Violet, a murder which

Beth had witnessed but cannot remember.

There is much to disturb in this tale. The cruelty, torture and general grue is enough to daunt the conscientious squeam, yet there is even more to fascinate and compel. Implied is the possibility that homosexual love may not simply be the result of a genuine attraction

to the same sex for sexual reasons . Would experience of sadism as a concomitant part of heterosexual experience, followed by gentleness from a same sex partner be sufficient to turn a woman to lesbian love? I felt the true passion Beth experienced with her three great

loves was from artificial causes rather than from true sexual attraction, but perhaps I misinterpret the author's intentions. There are flaws in some of the plotting - I can't really see Ben would have permitted Beth her original freedom for the specious reasons given; I found it somewhat unlikely that Beth would have survived the jump from the bridge; and I thought Beth's third and final lover seemed a little unconvincing. The characterisations on the whole were rather more caricatures than deep and convincing portraits. One scene, where

Beth encounters her husband while under the 'protection' of her pimp, did amuse me mightily.

This is a book greatly to be commended, as much for the understanding it could give an ordinary person into the lives of forced prostitutes as well as for being a very good story. Don't look for much optimism or sheer happiness and certainly few laughs. If your sensibilities are easily offended, be prepared to skim rather than read each word. Nonetheless, Stacking in Rivertown has left me, for one, with a desire to read any future work produced by Barbara Bell.

Editor's note: This is a review of the Australian version. Here's the cover

Reviewed by Denise Wels, January 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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