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on 24 May 2017
'Nothing Natural' received heavy criticism when it came out, with both feminists and male critics claiming that it condoned sadomasochistic relationships. Reading the book some thirty plus years after it first came out in 1984, I have to say I didn't see it that way - rather, I felt that it was a meditation on the terrible choices that women can make when they are depressed and feel disconnected from the rest of the world.

Not that Rachel Kee, the heroine of 'Nothing Natural', initially seems that depressed. She is divorced, but amiably so, loves her small daughter Carrie, and has a job as a tutor (primarily working with delinquent children unable to cope in mainstream school) which provides her with enough money to have her own flat, with a cat, and nice clothes. She shares custody of her daughter with her ex-husband, has a best friend she meets regularly for coffee, and enjoys her own company. So, when she takes up with Joshua, an unprepossessing but charismatic man who she meets at a dinner party, it is somewhat of a surprise that she is happy to let him hit her, have violent anal sex with her and insist on a very part-time relationship with no real personal ties. What, frankly, would be the appeal of this for any woman? Where Diski is very skilled is in gradually showing us why Rachel has made this choice - not only because of Joshua's charisma (which does, oddly, come across, even if he is also repellent), but because she doesn't really feel that she deserves anything else. The principal reason for this is that Rachel is frightened of intimacy, and wary of others - for reasons that go back to her childhood. Like her creator, Jenny Diski, she is the child of squabbling unstable parents who split up when she was ten; and like Diski her father abandons the family, while her mother descends into madness. Rachel, we learn, ended up in a mental hospital at the age of 15 and made two suicide attempts before she was 21. Like Diski again, she was saved by a foster mother - in Diski's case Doris Lessing, in Rachel's case the wise and compassionate Isobel Raine, a cancer specialist. But by the time Rachel found security in Isobel's house the damage was done. Even though she seems on the surface to have accomplished much: a job as a teacher in a comprehensive followed by the tutoring, an (albeit brief) marriage, friends and motherhood, deep down Rachel sees herself as someone unable to really connect to others, and not worth a serious relationship. Joshua's 'punishment' of her is, I think, really a way that Rachel can punish herself and work out her self-hatred and anger at the world. And eventually, this anger, and a deep, long-buried sorrow, will come to the surface with surprising results.

I felt Diski actually examined Rachel's situation with sensitivity and thoughtfulness - and though Rachel is not straightforwardly likeable, there's something about the way she's created that invites our understanding and compassion. True, there were elements of the story that I found slightly unsatisfactory. Joshua remained frustratingly elusive (for much of the time, he seemed a straightforwardly psychotic charmer, but the scene in which he breaks down weeping suggested a depth to his character that was never fully explored) though this may have been the point. I'm inclined to think that any woman as intelligent as Rachel would have asked herself why she was enjoying the humiliation and pain of whipping and anal sex so much, and quite possibly felt more shame than we see in the book, rather than just going along with whatever Joshua wanted. The end felt slightly rushed and I wondered at Rachel's exact motivation. I would have also liked to know more about her marriage and how such a disengaged woman actually made the decision to get married in the first place - and if she still got on well with her husband Michael, wouldn't he have featured more in her life? And there were practical matters that slightly puzzled me at times too - how Rachel could afford to live comfortably with her child and cat when she only seemed to be teaching for an hour or so a day, how Joshua always conveniently turned up when Carrie was away, why, when Rachel fell into despair, she didn't make more plans for the well being of her beloved cat. (There was also the slight problem that as the heroine was so like Diski in so many ways that I tended to assume the book was autobiographical - which it may well not have been.)

However, I have to say my interest and involvement in the book far outweighed any criticisms I had of it. I've rarely read anyone write so well - if with unbearable accuracy - about depression, or about cravings for solitude. The subplot, about Rachel's friendship with a delinquent teenager who she is coaching, was poignant and fascinating, and Carrie was a well-created child (hard to do in fiction). The immediacy and intelligence of the book indeed made me wish Diski had written more straightforward contemporary fiction, instead of retreating into historical or fantastical worlds as she tended to do in her later novels. But I'm definitely going to read some of her other fiction. I'm glad, if 'Nothing Natural' did have an autobiographical element, that Diski found happiness in later life, and a long-term partner. The novel leaves Rachel's future somewhat open - but I hope she did the same!
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on 14 September 2017
This may be the best book Jenny Diski ever wrote. It's a compelling erotic story about male-female power relationships involving a woman who needs pain, degradation and domination in order to experience pleasure. It's about sex without love or emotional commitment and it covers a range of sexual behaviour including telephone sex. It takes the female protagonist most of the book before she starts upending the power relationship and demanding that her lover starts to do what she demands. The twist at the end is brilliant. This is a far more subtle novel than the usual books about sado-masochistic sex and very much more 'literary' than shades-of-grey stuff. Well worth reading if you like novels about the darker aspect of some kinds of sexual obsession.
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on 31 May 2016
I read this when it first came out , post 9 1/2 half weeks and it seemed sharp , relevant and sexy. It hasn't stood the test of time, so often books of sex or humour date. This seems wooden now , a miserable spare rib reader in a baggy cardigan in Hampstead, worries over being kink sexy and a feminist. She is a guilty miserable spiteful character. Best to read this only to see how far we have come , after Belle de Jour and 50 shades, tinder and Craigs list , this is a story from a life time ago.
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on 7 May 2015
This is a very disturbing book......accordingly it is very unusual.......
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on 13 August 2014
very interesting read - especially with the little extra from the author.
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on 24 March 2013
bad news i didnt like this book and was rather upset as i thought it was going to be good. I wouldnt recommend it.
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on 4 September 2006
I found this to be a powerful book that delved deeply into the life of a woman named Rachel who becomes involved in a sadomasochistic relationship with an emotionally distant man. Initially I felt the title referred to this s&m relationship. However, as the author reveals more of Rachel's life, it appears that there is nothing natural in her emotionally starved world. Her parents fought bitterly when she was a child. She struggles with paralyzing spells of depression and is incapable of emotional closeness. She is delightfully articulate and quick witted - an intelligent woman with a large share of emotional distress. We watch her spiraling deeper into a suicidal state and it takes a strong reader to maintain compassion. Finally her darkest hour passes, and the novel ends with her first steps towards a healthier self concept. Compelling reading and wonderful character development - a great first novel.
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on 23 August 2003
I came upon this book by chance as it was part of a promotional display at my local library. I then made the unforgivable mistake of being lured into a book by the appearance of its cover.
The novel centres around the collusive sado-masochistic relationship between Rachel the main character and Joshua, a faceless individual about whom very little is revealed. I have to say I found the book unremittingly depressing. I turned the pages in vain hoping to find a glimmer of light, some redeeming feature of Rachel's personality which would lift the novel from the dreary and mundane: but no - she appeared to be a truly damaged personality with little hope of repair. I found the thread of the novel quite disjointed at times; the tone changing from a light magazine-style to some heavy, self-indulgent passages with whole-page paragraphs. Also I could not see how the section dealing with her quite different kind of relationship to Pete fitted into the overall theme of the novel: it seemed like a section from another kind of book altogether had been pasted in - it just did not seem to link up in any way.
At no time in the novel did I really see Rachel as a victim: the relationship though bizarre and often causing her pain was clearly as much under her control as his: it was plainly collusive. As the novel progressed I was intrigued to find out how Rachel would manage to maintain such a tightly controlled relationship while mentally she was so unbalanced. She was clearly terrified of intimacy and commitment of any kind and always sought the safety and refuge of her own company.
I found the farcical resolution to the novel disappointing and taking away what little hope I had left for Rachel. All in all a pretty gloomy read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 9 September 2009
Our narrator is Rachel, who, after a failed marriage to Michael, lives on her own with her small daughter. We learn about Rachel's unhappy childhood and then her much happier adoption by a single woman, Isobel. Now grown up and with a daughter of her own, after her marriage broke down Rachel is not looking for another relationship and prefers one-night stands, until she meets Joshua. From there the narrative takes us on a journey into a sado-masochistic affair which, to many readers will ring rather false. Joshua is a social charmer but he is into beating women and quite how such an ostensibly intelligent woman could remain involved with him is difficult to credit. As she explains it, he gives her permission to be submissive and childish - which we have been at pains to discover is not how she wants to be in the rest of her life. And there's a child, around there somewhere, though after an introduction of her at the beginning, she's never heard of again. As Rachel is never sure when her abuser will turn up, what does she do when the kid is with her?

A more convincing sub-plot describes Rachel's efforts to help a young boy in a local children's home whom she is helping to work towards some CSEs before he leaves the home. The mixture of indifference and sympathy Rachel displays in this relationship is much more convincing and logical, but there is no happy ending.

In an afterword Diski explains her puzzlement at how the novel was received by some feminists. Whilst I have some sympathy for the outrage, I can also see that suppression of fantasy sex-lives is not the answer, even in the cause of feminism. This is a contentious book largely about sexual deviance and those who baulk at the explicit should stay away.
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on 28 May 2003
I read this as an interested participant in submissive sexual practices and although it was easy to read I found it disappointing on several scores. Firstly, the hype which Rachel's relationship with Joshua caused in all previous reviews completely blanks out the significant relationship she develops with Pete who she is teaching. Further, while submission is truly addictive this is not that well documented or explored. Lastly I could see no reasons why anyone would submit to Joshua Ableman - he has no features at all as outlined in the book, and certainly none of the features I would expect to see in any dominant partner of mine. Thank goodness we are all different.
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