'Exquisite juicing movements’

Monique Roffey, The Trust

Dodo Ink, 192pp, £8.99, ISBN 9780993575860

reviewed by Anna Maconochie

What do readers of ‘the erotic novel’ want? In our screen-heavy times, it is intriguing that this most goal-driven of literally genres is having a moment amidst the plethora of downloadable smut. The erotic scribe seeks not just to tell a tale but to get you, the reader, off – if not literally, then at least between your ears, unlike the romantic or literary fiction writer who happens to drop in a sex scene. In The Tryst, the ambitious and confident Monique Roffey adds yet a third layer – a hidden world glimpsed in her shape-shifting siren alluding to pre-Genesis times where pointy-eared elfin daughters of Lilith rolled in the proverbial muck. Tolkien would have blushed.

The novel opens with Lilah Hopkins entering the loving but sexless marriage of middle-aged middle-class Londoners Bill and Jane like a nympho wrecking ball one summer night in their local pub; immediately we are made to understand how other-worldly, how truly exceptional she is. She has pointy ears, no eyelashes, blood-red bobbed hair and is ‘freakishly short’. We also learn she is American, from the deep South, outdated in her speech and brash ability to manipulate. I don’t know who you tend to meet when grabbing a spontaneous pint in well-heeled North London with your spouse one night half-hoping to catch a stranger’s eye, but watch your expectations – it’s unlikely to be this gal. Nor is this book an encouragement to bored couples to get Tindering together. Straightaway Roffey wants to take us outside of the realm of the believable, which begs the question: are we supposed to be as entranced as earthy, gentle oak-like Bill? Would you send these two on a blind date? For all the detail, Lilah is hard to picture; if only Nabokov were around to give forth on whether the possibly stunted Lilah could pass as a nymphet with that rack. ‘Caress the divine details,’ the creator of Lolita once said of the writing process. He might have added, ‘but not too many details or you’ll get caressing fatigue.’

Interwoven between the ensuing sexcapades brought on by this chance pub meeting is the book’s core – the touching and terribly modern story of Bill and Jane, two vulnerable souls who found each other at the right time for succeeding at the wrong sort of marriage (at least wrong for a Roffey-ite: when the novel is in Lilah’s voice she frequently chooses to refer to Jane as ‘Miss Unfucked' as well as the even more damning ‘Miss Polo Neck’). The passion is long dead, the cat has become too important. Jane tells us she loves Bill the way nuns love God. The story of how they met, what they ask each other on their early dates – and here I must congratulate Roffey for writing a novel ranging from ‘My translucent grass-scented cum flowed out of me’ to Jane asking Bill that awkward first date classic ‘What do you do?’ – and how their love turns out not to be enough is the real, if not fully explored, flesh of the book. In its set up, The Tryst cannot help but tackle a meaty contemporary question: what to do when you marry someone but there’s no bada bing?

Roffey doesn’t answer that or even try to tug at our hearts particularly. As a showman and a sensationalist, her greater interest and her achievement is her flair and imagination when it comes to writing sex. Like a lover with the well-practised moves, she doesn’t hold back in her detail or its execution. Such competence is welcome in a genre full of wannabes afraid of third base doing themselves down in the hope of getting a Bad Sex Award. Roffey means business. That is, if getting off with a daemonic elf-minx from Alabama and ancient times and reading about her ‘executing exquisite juicing movements’ (Nutribullet really should hire Roffey for a strapline) is your bag. I thought I was reading a niche interest piece of erotica but the commercial success of The Tryst so far suggests there are a lot of Bills and Janes out there who are willing to read racy works to say they have checked it out, whether they want a Lilah in their life or not. For some, checking it out and raising eyebrows will be enough. Some will find that confidence is not enough to win them over. Others will be firmly reminded that it is damn hard to make the actual liquid outcomes of sex anything less than unpalatable on the page. Roffey’s insistent bravado renders us prudes whether we like it or not.

Navigating through the gymnastics of The Tryst brought to mind another troubled marriage novel in particular which, four decades ago, had some related themes – the glowingly tragic Light Years (1975) by James Salter. The husband, Viri, engrossed in work and children, is still in love with his wife Nedra but at a movie screening, he meets a real-life ‘Lilah’, a gorgeous mess of a girl called Kaya who becomes his lover. ‘A girl like that was never alone’ Salter writes, and we get it – she’s a one-off. Like Viri, we get precious little of Kaya, both in description and action. What we do get is enough to demand our brains enjoy the ache to fill in the dots. Like a skilled film editor, Salter has the ability to pick on just one or two unique details (‘. . . slim, with full breasts as if she were burdened by them. Even her thumbs were bony.’) and to leave much out. He doesn’t even feel the need to describe her face.

None of us will encounter a Lilah, but we’ve all met a Kaya or even briefly had her. She is ultimately unobtainable so of course I wanted more. And yet, I wanted to be tortured a bit by her absence, knowing that to be satiated is not a happy state for a reader of erotic fiction. Salter’s confidence is that of a writer who doesn’t need to prove he can write sex and indeed the entire novel has an undertone of sensuality in the widest reaches of the word. Were he to have turned his hand to an erotic novel in his lifetime, it might have not have worked as well as Light Years does, but herein lies the problem of tone – an erotic novel needs to have plenty of rut factor or it’s not an erotic novel. And how to reconcile that with a plot more complicated than the plumber coming for a visit? Roffey’s tone-switches are appropriate to her project, as is her promise to her readers of delivering a lot of sex in deftly graphic wording but for all the body heat and mess of the situation, I felt switched around without ultimately finding much reason to care about Jane and Bill’s heartaches. Like the self-centred Lilah, the book ends up being cold and efficient. Kaya, I hope we meet again.