The Tryst by Monique Roffey

Reviewed by Harriet

This is a remarkable book by any standard. It’s marketed by the publisher, Dodo Ink, as a literary erotic novella, which sounds about right, as long as you remember the emphasis on the literary bit. There is certainly a huge amount of vivid, sometimes violent, sex here, but it’s about as far from the Fifty Shades mode (I assume, though I haven’t read those books) as you could possibly go. Literary, though, yes – magic realism meets mythology in what is essentially a wonderfully moving and believable story of a modern marriage which has somehow gone dead inside. Can such a marriage be revived? Well, let’s just say this novel does have a happy ending, against what seem to be insurmountable odds.

Jane and Bill, both in their early forties, have only been married a few years. There’s no question that they love each other, but their sex life, always rather infrequent, has for the past two years been non-existent. In classical terms, their love is agape (pure, incorporeal) rather then eros (physical, sexual). It’s not, however, that they are asexual beings: Bill has reluctantly accepted that this is just how things are, while Jane fantasises endlessly about sexual encounters with faceless strangers, who even invade her nightime dreams:

The more I lived with Bill, the more I loved him. I loved him too much: I loved him unfathomably. But I didn’t dream of him, not in the way I dreamt of other men, like the faceless man I had just dreamt up in the bar. I had pondered this conumdrum for some time. I was trapped in a monogamous world, inside my marriage and inside myself….Often I would wake with my fingers reaching towards the wetness between my thighs. I wouldn’t turn to Bill: I would pleasure myself later, when he was downstairs, spreading my long legs.

I suspect that this situation is more common than is generally spoken of. It’s as if an invisible barrier has sprung up between them, which prevents them from reaching out to each other physically, or sharing their secret desires. It is complicated too by the question of children, about which Jane is ambivalent. Every year on his birthday she gives Bill a present of a decorated egg, carefully chosen from antique shops or jewellers and clearly heavily symbolic:

I wasn’t sure if I didn’t want children, or didn’t want children with Bill. Each egg I gave Bill made me question this more. I saw the eggs as potent reminders of this failure on my part.

How long this strange, sad, affectionate half-marriage could continue is questionable – conceivably forever. But one evening in the pub, Bill and Jane encounter a woman named Lilah, who Jane sees as offering some kind of catharsis. Lilah is small, compact, almost childlike at first glance, but soon revealed as an intensely sexual being. She has some strange attributes, including a pair of very pointed ears. Bill is obviously entranced by her, and Jane, also fascinated and a little drunk, turns to Lilah and looks deep into her green eyes: ‘The night is still young. Why don’t you come back to our place?’ What was she thinking? She couldn’t really say. But soon she is out of the house while Lilah and Bill are locked in the most intense explosion of an erotic encounter, which lasts at least twenty-four hours.

Lilah, of course, is a creature both intensely earthy and essentially non-human. She later reveals herself to be a descendent of Lilith, in Jewish mythology Adam’s first wife, who refused to be subservient to him – or alternatively, is believed to be a sexually wanton demon of the night. Clearly both these readings have relevance here. Lilah has huge and terrifying power, which she augments by creating her own artefacts around the house and workshop, pyramids built of found materials, which seem somehow imbued with magical powers. She embeds some of Jane’s gifted eggs in one of them and it seems at first that she has absolute power over Bill and has got rid of Jane forever. But all is not as plain sailing for her as she expects, and this is owing to the fact that she has met her match in Bill, who blossoms as a result of their ongoing encounters and seems almost to turn into some kind of powerful earth spirit himself. And for the first time, Lilah finds herself being drawn into a kind of relationship of dependence, something she has never experienced or desired. And as she subtly weakens, so Jane seems to find some hidden strength. The whole thing culminates in an extraordinary, brilliant scene in which Lilah, crushed, is forced to reveal her frightening, non-human real nature and appearance.

I said at the beginning that this is a remarkable book, and I can guarantee you won’t ever have read anything remotely like it. But I’d say that the best thing about it, leaving aside the extraordinary sex, the magic realism, and the mythology, is the fact that at it’s core it’s a love story, the story of a marriage between two good, loving, well-meaning people who have got to find a way to break through their self-created barriers and find true happiness. Without that, it would be purely sensational, but with it, the novel gains a level of pyschological realism which is both moving and thought-provoking.

Monique Roffey is said to written the novel over a fifteen year period. It would be interesting to have an account of how it changed and progressed over that period. Hooray for Dodo Ink for publishing it. Amazing stuff.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Monique Roffey, The Tryst (Dodo Ink, 2017). 978-0993575846, 186pp., paperback.

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