Brace yourselves …
I don’t love Marmite but I did love this book despite the vulgarity and regardless of the vomit-inducing descriptions of bodily torture. It is totally unique (although from the same vein as Roche’s other book, Wrecked) and really pretty disgusting to read. Considering I usually pride myself on my incredibly strong stomach and my inability to be easily shocked, that was no mean feat.
At first I thought it was a bit of a feminist romp, a little gratuitous and most-definitely gross, but about halfway through I started to see the protagonist, Helen Memel, in a slightly different light. She’s an eighteen year old school student with a very colourful sex-life and is an unfortunate sufferer of haemorrhoids who has had to have an operation on her butt due to a shaving accident and the subsequent infected lesion on her piles. Her blatant disregard for hygiene makes for an interesting period spent on the hospital ward.
There were many threads to her story, which made her a very vivid character. Firstly, and possibly the most discussed, is her sex life. For an eighteen year old girl she has certainly been around the block. From the sounds of it she has copulated with a large percentage of the population (both male and female) which I found slightly gross, but who am I to judge? She is a fictional character, after all. Dotted throughout the novel are descriptions of various partners she has been with and their sexual preferences (I won’t go into details), a chance meeting with a stranger who wants to shave her all over and many, many period related incidents (tampon swapping with friends anyone? how about reusing homemade tampons? No? Thought not …) Then you have Helen’s obsession with bodily secretions – any finger-shaped orifice will inevitably have a finger inserted, and if it just so happens that said orifice produces any substance, it will inevitably get eaten or sucked from her finger. Dried smegma (ewww) gets chewed from under her fingernails, scabs get picked and eaten … you name it, she’ll eat it.
Then there’s her new-found love for her male nurse, Robin. He seems like a nice chap and he doesn’t seem that phased when Helen asks him to take photos of her post-op butt wound, nor does he bat an eyelid when she tells him some pretty shocking stories about her life. She is constantly finding reasons to press the buzzer to get his attention and he is always gentle and caring. I got the impression that this was something she’d never had from a man before, apart from her father, whom she has a happy, if slightly awkward, relationship with.
Her relationship with her mother is slightly more strained, due to her mother’s attempted suicide when she was younger and the many strange rules and ideals that mother dearest imposed on her. Despite all this, Helen spends a lot of her time in hospital trying to get her estranged parents back together. This struck a chord with me. Roche writes that what all children of divorced parents want most in the world is for their parents to be together, but I can’t say that’s true. Of course, there was a time in my life when that pretty much was all I wanted, but growing up with four parents who loved me and supported me was a million times better than growing up in an unhappy house with two people who love me but aren’t right for each other. I had the best of both worlds, and I have my parents divorce to thank for that.
But back to Helen. She has endured a lot of pain in her short life, and she is naive and childlike in her cries for attention. After a failed attempt at organising a meet between her parents she rips open her butt wound and endures a massive, almost-fatal bleed and an emergency operation, and it just goes to show how deeply this has affected her. Her promiscuity is just a way of dampening the pain and hiding her true feelings. It’s a cry for help, which no one hears.
Something that intrigues me about writing (and writers) is whether everything they write down is a secret fantasy, or a snippet of truth that they wouldn’t dare tell anyone. I wondered throughout the whole of this book whether Charlotte Roche has shagged her way around Germany or whether she inserts the shower head into her lady parts to get herself off. I got my answer in an interview published at the end of the book. The novel is semi-autobiographical, there are some scenes she has taken from her own teenage life, which I found surprising but also kind of cool.
We forget in all this hygiene hysteria that we’re actually pretty robust and our immune system is there for a reason. This book isn’t gratuitous at all – it’s an honest (if slightly exaggerated) account of human pain and suffering. Roche is unflinching and relentless in putting forth all the gory, dirty details of femininity and of humanity. When all we see is flawless, airbrushed, pornographic perfection it’s actually a breath of fresh air to view the female form in all its dirty, sweaty, hairy glory.