Roche's Wetlands caused massive controversy when it was published, for its transgressive and ‘pornographic’ content. To me, it seems the real transgressive element of the novel lies not with Helen’s explicit descriptions of sex but in the character’s comfortable, playful attitude towards the parts of her body that most of us deem disgusting or wasteful.
The story of Roche’s Wetlands is narrated by the compelling 18 year old, Helen, from the bed of her hospital room. She is being treated for an anal lesion caused by her ‘lady shaving’ through which her ‘swollen haemorrhoids are also pushing with all their strength against the wound’. By page 5 we have been introduced to Helen’s haemorrhoids, bum, shaving routine, favourite sex position (doggy), puss, shit and the “wedge shaped incision” soon to be cut from her anus.
Certainly not for the fainthearted, this book required me to push through my squeamishness and toughen up. As the novel progresses, the reader is treated to graphic descriptions of Helen’s handling of her bodily fluids: she makes her own tampons, licks the puss from her wound (the wedge shaped one) and notes the “ass piss” resulting from her surgery.
I met the character’s abhorrence towards hygiene standards with both disgust and admiration: this was an 18year old so excited by the parts of her body to which most of us are ignorant. Her unbridled investigation of the body challenged me to consider the foundations of my instant disgust (and presumably, the instant disgust of others). Helen complains of the ‘hygiene fanatics’ that wash fruit, logically noting that the nurse who insists on washing her grapes will not wash any pesticides off. She goes on to mention that dog shit is ‘the worst contaminant a hygiene fanatic can imagine’ and by the end of this mini manifesto I found myself wondering if a spoonful of dog shit really would hurt anyone.
Helen’s creative treatment of her body is also paired with a sense of sexual confidence and explicit descriptions of her sexual experiences. This confidence is striking, and Roche described her desire to present ‘the whole package, women aren’t just a sexy presentation space’ so when the reader gets a bit ‘too excited’ they’ll ‘immediately get turned off again’.
This conflation of Helen’s bodily fluids and sexual exploration pairs the disgusting and the erotic. This, combined with an inability to predict Helen's actions means the reader cannot settle or approach the book absentmindedly. I would recommend this book to anyone who has inhibitions surrounding their body (most people), and anyone looking to think more creatively through their shyness (some people). The novel asks interesting questions about how we see our bodies: how can we break free from our inhibitions, and what is the source of such inhibitions? How can we be more playful, more creative? Should we eat our fluids? Being asked these questions by the sometimes vulnerable, often startling Helen makes Wetlands an important and captivating read.