Book review: Love Me Tender by Constance Debré

Writer Constance Debré, from a prestigious French family quit her job as a lawyer and left her husband of twenty years in pursuit of herself as a butch lesbian. When she tells her ex-husband she is sleeping with women and wants a divorce, he responds by telling her that their eight year old son Paul hates her. He takes custody of their son and severs Debré’s relationship with him. Love Me Tender is about her journey as her life is falling apart.

I spit it out, I say, I’ve started seeing girls. Just in case there was any doubt in his mind, with the new short hair, the new tattoos, the look in general. It’s basically the same as before, obviously just a bit more distinct.

After six months Debré applies for joint custody, only to be accused of incest and paedophilia. The judge grants the ex-husband sole custody, and Debré only supervised visits under the watchful eyes of experts. One hours every fifteen days until the next hearing in two years time. By the time the courts grant her access rights to spend time alone with her son, the distance between them cannot be bridged, largely due to her ex-husband’s campaign against her. Eventually she gives up, grieves her son and moves on.

As for your dad and I, his anger towards me, everything he’s said about me, to the judge, to you, don’t take it to heart. Don’t be angry with him. This kind of thing happens all the time, arguments between two people who once loved each other. That’s the ways it’s always been, acid getting thrown in faces when people fall out of love.

Debré’s life shrinks. She gives up the apartment that she once shared with her son to stay in cheap studios and the beds of lovers and friends. She sheds possessions down to three t-shirts, two pairs of jeans, an old leather jacket and a Rolex. She spends her time swimming, smoking cigarettes and having sex. Swimming keeps her sane. Sex is addiction, not romance – it obliterates the self.

I don’t know if you hate me. You don’t have to answer. You’re allowed to hate me. In fact, hate is a necessary part of love. There is no love without hate. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar or a coward.

Love Me Tender tracks Debré’s transformation. She does not just come out and continue her life trajectory. She sheds people and things and femininity and embraces a kind of machismo, shaving her head, getting tattoos and giving her lovers, ‘the girls’, a number rather than a name.

I don’t see why the love between a mother and son should be any different from other kinds of love. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to stop loving each other? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to break up?

Her refusal to participate in a way that is expected of a woman of her class results in her sliding from her formerly bourgeois life and being rejected by her family. As her roles as a wife, mother and professional dissolve, she becomes a new person and takes on a new existence and life and relationship to the world.

I wasn’t made for the domestic life. That’s usually the reason it doesn’t work out with girls.

Love Me Tender is a short book (only 165 pages) with free flowing sentences that make compelling reading. Neither the book nor Debré will be for everyone, but we all respond differently and grief. Perhaps is the due to the distance at which she keeps her reader, that I could not turn away and kept turning the pages, hoping to get beneath the lack of sentimentality and almost blasé tone. Her prose is punchy, unapologetic and hauntingly honest. I found Love Me Tender uncomfortably refreshing and could not put it down.

Book review: 7 1/2 by Christos Tsiolkas

7 1/2 is a book about an author (Christos) who has fled the city to an isolated small town on the East Coast of Australia to write a story that has been lingering in his mind for years. Chistos wants the book to be about beauty – an antidote to a world that has been brimming over with crisis. And there is much beauty in it – landscapes and the weather and animals that pass across them, human connections and bodies are described lavishly. He also reflects on his pleasure in his writing process, and with affection on his childhood and the people who made him the man he has become.

I listened to the audiobook (twice) narrated by Lex Marinos and the words spilled over me like honey as I toiled in my Autumn garden and cooked and preserved the excess produce in my kitchen. Whilst listening to Christos’s writing about the things he loved, I was doing things that I love. Turning the soil, making pickled zucchini, poached quinces, pumpkin gnocchi and soup from the abundance of Autumn produce for my freezer whilst glancing out at the grapevine turning fire red through my kitchen window.

But I no longer trust the judgements of my age. The critic now assesses the writer’s life as much as her work. The judges award prizes according to a checklist of criteria created by corporations and bureaucrats. And we writers and artists acquiesce, fearful of a word that might be misconstrued or an image that might cause offence. I read many of the books nominated for the globalised book prizes; so many of them priggish and scolding, or contrite and chastened. I feel the same way about those films feted at global festivals and award ceremonies. It’s not even that it is dead art: it’s worse, it’s safe art. Most of them don’t even have the dignity of real decay and desiccation: like the puritan elect, they want to take their piety into the next world. Their books and their films don’t even have the power to raise a good stench. The safe is always antiseptic.

A man in middle age reflects on what he loves about being in the world. The book is auto fiction – part deeply personal and part fiction. The novel the protagonist is writing is called ‘Sweet Thing’ and is about an ageing ex-porn star and drug addict who leaves his wife and child temporarily to take a trip from Australia home to the USA where his is confronted by his past.

At the start of the novel Christos declares that he is tired of writing about issues – politics, sexuality, race, history, gender and morality – they bore him. Yet there are echoes of these topics throughout the novel – because they are part of life and it is difficult to separate ourselves from them completely. Ugliness and beauty coexist. We never really know what a thing is unless we can give an adequate account of its antithesis – a concepts Christos acknowledges at one point in 7 1/2.

There were moments in this book that were so personal, poetic and exquisite, they bought tears to my eyes. I will no doubt read it again just to inspire my own writing.