Filler content with ‘sexy’ stuff

A review that was posted to the old TTA Press website on 31/7/07:-

Serpent’s Tail paperback, 317pp, £6.99

This is the story of Sarah Clarke, fourteen years old when we first meet her and enthralled with the romance of literature, so much so that she enters into an affair with English teacher Daniel Carr. She is being abused, though Sarah doesn’t see things that way. She’s in love with Carr and when he leaves her, moving with his wife to another city, she falls apart. As the years go by and she grows into womanhood, Sarah gains a reputation for promiscuity, moving from one meaningless relationship to another, using men in the same way that they use women, with best friend Jamie the only person she feels close to. And then Carr returns into her life, as haunted and damaged by her as she was by him, and the two of them embark on a no holds barred sexual relationship, S&M without a safe word or safety net.

Taming the Beast is a powerful novel, painful to read at times and intensely moving, the story of one woman’s exploration of her own sexuality, with Sarah relentlessly pushing at the boundaries of experience. Maguire addresses important issues, delving deep into relationships and the attendant power structures, matters of obsession and consent, asking questions about responsibility. And yet she never gives in to the temptation to moralise. Sarah Clarke is many things, will elicit many feelings from the reader, but she never becomes an object of pity, not even when she is brutally raped by two men. Sarah abides by her own rules, takes responsibility for her actions and never leaves them in the lurch, and so there remains something admirable about her, even as events tear her damaged psyche apart. Maguire’s characterisation is utterly convincing and the novel’s psychological underpinning credibly rendered. She appears to have a firm grasp of why her characters act as they do, and the need for a love/physical fulfilment beyond the ordinary, outside of convention, that animates them, and yet at the same time there’s the sense that she is discovering Sarah, even as we do.

Central to the book is Sarah’s relationship with Carr. Initially he holds the power and she dances to his tune, but as things progress Sarah becomes the more dominant, and it is Carr who is obsessed, unable to help himself, his brutality and the demands he makes of her the only way in which he can retain some autonomy. There’s a rite of passage quality to this, the novel ending with Sarah’s realisation that one day she will have outgrown Carr and be able to put him behind her, and it’s at this moment that she reaches full maturity, casts off the ghost of that fourteen year old girl hopelessly in love with an older man.

Life is never simple though. Each action is like a stone thrown into a pond, with circles spreading ever outward, and so Maguire shows us not only Sarah’s relationship to Carr but the effect her actions have on the other people in her life, the men who care about her, love her, want her for themselves. The character most affected is Jamie, the good friend who loves Sarah but can never speak out, who has to watch her going with a constant stream of other men and must always be there with a shoulder for her to cry on, while all the time it’s he himself who is crying inside. He is a tragic figure and tragedy is what Maguire gives us, stark and uncompromising, terrible.

While it deals with sexuality and is explicit throughout, there is nothing in Taming the Beast that could be described as gratuitous or even erotic. It is, to labour the point, a novel about sex but not a sexy novel, instead taking in the extremes of human behaviour on their own terms, with no attempt to dress things up or play them down, just raw and realistic like life itself. Highly recommended.

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