Desires: A Belated Review

At the weekend I stumbled across a news item involving Penny Pepper, who used to write reviews for Zene/Zine/The Fix back in the good old/bad old days, and that reminded me that the review I did of Desires, her collection of erotic stories, has never actually been published, for various reasons.

I then did some checking and found that not only is Desires still available on Amazon, but last year publisher Bejamo Press released Desires Reborn, an extended edition for Kindle, timed to coincide with the Paralympics.

At this point I decided that I should most definitely post my review on here, as I hate for anything to go to waste.

It may also have the distinction of being the only book review in which I (sort of) admit to getting a stiffie, so that’s something that certainly needs to be in the public domain 😉

So, from 2003/2004 or thereabouts, warts and all, here is my review of…

DESIRES by PENNY PEPPER

The characters in Desires do all the things that other people do, people like you and me. They masturbate and they fuck; they cheat on their partners and get all silly over people who won’t give them the time of day; they seek true love and sometimes they even find it. The difference, and the point is perhaps that it shouldn’t be a difference, is that these people are disabled.

The opening story is called ‘Girls Wank Too’ and that title suggests an agenda; on the one hand there’s something quite calculated and almost confrontational about Pepper’s use of the word ‘wank’, and on the other the implication suggested by  ‘too’, that this is all perfectly acceptable and not something anyone should go getting their knickers in a twist about. Certainly the situation described in the story is quite ordinary, a young woman discovering the joys of self-love, but Chrissie is disabled and living in an institution. She must cope not only with the physical limitations of her condition, the difficulty of reaching an itch that needs to be scratched, but also the entirely avoidable assumptions of staff who’ve taken their ideas of caring out of the Nurse Ratched handbook for trainee psychopaths and for whom it would be more convenient if their charges didn’t have any libido at all. For Chrissie the act of masturbation, routine and little more than simple pleasure for most of us, is an act of assertiveness and her success is a triumph over adversity of the first order.

We all make assumptions. There was a time when, as a non-handicapped person, thinking about  disability it loomed so large in my mind and seemed so threatening that I found it hard to imagine the disabled themselves weren’t obsessed with their condition to the exclusion of all else. Desires refutes that assumption. Yes, the characters find certain acts harder to perform than the rest of us, and they get really pissed at the often patronising attitudes of the non-disabled, but they adapt and learn to cope, and insofar as they have ‘obsessions’ they’re to do with love and getting laid and all the other stuff that so consumes everybody else.

Fran, the heroine of ‘Thunder Lightning Days’, befriends men on the internet and dreams of going further, lays plans to get out more and live independently in a flat of her own, but she’s held back by a mother who’s taken on the role of martyr and needs her daughter to be helpless as a way of affirming that decision. ‘The Summer is Free’ tells the story of Linda, a young disabled woman in an institution losing her virginity to one of the orderlies, and her curiosity about sex and the romantic aspirations that set her all atremble, the nervousness she feels at first love and the awkwardness of that first time, all touch on what is common experience, while the scene where they do the ‘dirty deed’ is filled with genuine tenderness and the book’s most overt eroticism, the combination of loving talk and gritty, no holds barred description acting as a real turn on (I read this book concurrently with Best American Erotica 2002 and while Pepper’s prose might not be as sophisticated, for oomph factor she blows most of them out of the water). This commonality of experience is also seen in ‘Fooling for Charlie’, the only story written from a male perspective, with disabled man Richard scheming up ways to attract the woman of his dreams and worrying that she is never going to notice him, and if you’re male and reading this and not Richard Gere, chances are Pepper’s story will strike a sympathetic chord. ‘The Quiet Paradox’ comes at the same situation from a different angle, with Kim afraid that the man she wants is rejecting her because of her disability, but learning to cope with the fact that attraction isn’t always mutual, as must we all; picking herself up and dusting herself down and setting out bait for the next fish in the sea, as must we all. ‘Postcards for Jean’ tackles loneliness, with its disabled protagonist looking back at her life and questioning if she’s made the right decisions with regard to her emotional well-being, finally discovering redemption in the example of others and pursuit of an old love. It’s never too late, for any of us.

‘Seven Days’ is the only story with which I had trouble. Lucy moves from one sexual encounter to another, becoming an object for the men she sleeps with, as if through serial fucking she seeks to achieve some sort of validation, but what put me off was the rather rigid ‘one a night’ structure of the story, which seemed almost formulaic and contrived compared to the realism of the other situations Pepper describes. And I baulked slightly at the good time girl gets what’s coming to her conclusion, with its harsh subtext, though I can see that probably this is just how such a story would play out in real life and Pepper’s criticism of social mores, as seen in the attitudes of Lucy’s friend and her doctor, whose reaction to his patient’s pro-active sexuality is to change the subject, is valid and undercuts the more obvious puritanical streak in the text. Society judges Lucy, but in showing this the author holds up a mirror to that same society and finds it wanting. Finally that old favourite of the soft porn movie makers, the ‘Lava Lamp’, is enlisted as a symbol of love and loss in the story of Ellen, who cheats on her husband with his more fanciable younger brother.

There’s the whole gamut of human emotions here and a challenge to all those assumptions I talked of earlier. Pepper is not a disabled woman writing about disabled sex for the benefit of the prurient. She’s a writer dealing with universal themes and situations whose characters just happen to be disabled, and she deserves to be dealt with on those terms. Recommended.

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