A writer stripped bare

I am an unabashed fan of Nikki Gemmel’s writing. Her prose never fails to impress me with its fluid poetry and an inventive turn of phrase that is uniquely hers.

‘The golden thrum washes through you like liquid sun under your skin.’

That said, I don’t love every story she writes.

Nikki’s most well known claim to fame is ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’. It was first published anonymously (only for a week before she was outed as the author). Its salacious erotic content created quite a stir in the international publishing world. Was it a ‘serious’ book or just ‘literary porn’?  In the end it didn’t matter, the controversy was all she needed to promote massive book sales.

When I read it I found it to be both un-put-downable and annoyingly self indulgent. The whole book is written in second person (‘you sit down in a café – you look for him’) from the point of view on an unnamed main character. The sex is written interestingly, compellingly and sometimes veers into downright dirty. Nikki has consistently declared her aim was to write a really honest book about contemporary female sexuality – which I think she managed with Bride Stripped Bare.

Unfortunately I think she was preaching to the converted – women. We already know what we are universally missing in the sexual experience. Generally it’s blokes who remain (willingly) in the dark about what makes for great sex. And when it comes to books like these the vast majority of men skip through to the sexy bits and miss the educative bits inbetween.

With My Body has been touted as the ‘long awaited sequel’ to Bride Stripped Bare. It’s written in the same style – in second person, in the form of a diary of an unnamed character. It’s essentially a mid-life crisis story. Married, expat Aussie mum in her mid-forties bored senseless by relentless piles of laundry, a sexless marriage, and the social tensions of the English private school community, returns to her remote NSW home with her three boys for recovery, reconnection and respite. Here she revisits the blooming of her sexual self between the ages of 14 to 16 and in particular, an intensely adventurous sexual affair she had with some older man she discovers in a virtually abandoned mansion completely by accident.

This man introduces her to the art of love making – not just sex – but an exploration of desire and fantasy in a supposedly safe environment. The woman/young girl telling the story comes across as desperate for attention and this bloke provides it in spades.  She’s falling in love and he, well, we are never really sure where he’s coming from. There’s plenty of vivid description of what goes on as he pushes the sexual boundaries with her further and further, introducing silk blind folds, hand-cuffs and strangers (though we never know how many).

Having found myself compelled and annoyed by Bride, I was unprepared for how I would feel reading With My Body. I was irritated. I found myself wondering if this was a book Nikki was expected to write, had to write, rather than wanted to write. At times there was a sense of déjà vu and I wondered whether she felt compelled to make the sexy bits explicit because that’s what she’d done in Bride Stripped Bare.

I found the second person narrative a bit of a hurdle, especially in scenes where, as a reader, you’re looking for empathy with a very young character and can’t find it. There were moments when the prose glittered and I was drawn into the story, but more often than not I was unconvinced that this particular sixteen year old girl was really brave enough to allow a mature man to push her boundaries quite so far, given it was her first sexual experience.

Still, I might be wrong. I was pretty clueless at sixteen. I can’t say I have much of an idea what sixteen year olds would get up to if they were pushed. The character in question goes to all the places and more that most of us only travel to in fantasy land. Nonetheless the sex scenes, for the most part, were a fun ride 😉

In the end the character’s journey back is one of reclamation. The inevitable, unexplained dumping that leaves her breathlessly depressed for years is explained and she able to draw on the magic of ‘closure’ to return to England and reclaim her marriage and her rightful place in the private school social order. She finally has sex (good sex) with her willing husband again (who is surprisingly not at all bitter about going without for 2 years) and she comes to terms with who she has become in her forties.

It’s a tough call as a writer, having to follow up an absolute rip roaring block buster that caused a complete ruckus. I almost wonder if it’s better not to. Unless what was started in the first one isn’t quite finished – which can happen. Writers don’t just write about ideas. They write to ideas, toward them. It’s not uncommon to see themes evolving through subsequent works. I’m not sure that is what Nikki Gemmel was aiming for in With My Body or not. Only Nikki knows. And you’ll have to make up your own mind.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. new orleans louisiana
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 14:21:29

    bookmarked!!, I love your web site!


  2. Lisa Walker
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 12:04:48

    Thanks for the review. I just re-read Nikki Gemmel’s ‘Shiver’ which is pretty great, I think. Erotic writing is tough to get right – I think I’d still like to read this one.


    • Kate Rizzetti
      Jun 13, 2012 @ 18:01:30

      You’re right, erotic writing is hard to get right and Nikki Gemmel does it better than most. Shiver is great, as is Cleave. I’m a bit floored by the reception that 50 shades has received – it’s very repetative. There’s so much out there that’s better than it. All I can think is that the readers don’t know the difference because they’ve never been exposed to it before. All the more reason to draw attention to the good stuff I reckon.


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