Peach by Emma Glass

Bloomsbury Circus, January 2018, 104 pp

Bloomsbury Circus, January 2018, 104 pp

Peach, London-based Emma Glass’s debut novel, addresses a topical issue by telling the story of Peach, the eponymous narrator, who has been sexually assaulted. Peach’s story, told in the author’s peculiar and nightmarish writing style, starts right after the rape, and we follow her painful coping in a dream-like narrative where nothing quite goes as we would wish for Peach. While her parents, busy with their own sex life, fail to notice anything different in their daughter, Peach is haunted by her rapist who she associates with grease and meat. This is a fast yet intense read written in the present tense with first-person narration. It’s hard to put it down once you have picked it up.

Language itself is tied closely to the story of Peach. Glass aims to represent in language the most instant and intimate experience of the physical world. She presents reality onomatopoetically with scrupulous attention to all its gruesome details. Grammar is thrown out of the window, not unlike in the novels of Eimear McBride, and what is left is a poetic and very literary voice. Often, words come to Peach (or Glass?) based on the phonetic qualities of the previous words, not unlike in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The novel opens:

Thick stick sticky sticking wet ragged wool winding round the wounds, stitching the sliced skin together as I walk, scraping my mittened hand against the wall. Rough red bricks ripping the wool. Ripping the skin. Rough red skin. Rough red head. I pull the fuzzy mitten from my fingers, wincing as the torn threads grip the grazes on my knuckles. It is dark. The blood is black.

With all its rhythms and alliterations reflecting the immediate reality that Peach suffers through, this is a novel to be read out loud. In fact, the story would benefit a lot from a professional audio version, not only to bring the text alive, but also because I’m curious to find out how some of the gawkier expressions could be performed. What, for instance, does the last word in the following passage signify? “Long sausage legs slipping over the pavement. Think. Fat. Swing. Swinging. Swing. Ing.” On paper, “ing” doesn’t say a lot, but perhaps a credible audio version would do it justice by representing it as a swift, creaking sound, like that of a swing. Or would it still be comedic?

That said, there are moments when the language doesn’t quite hold up. Most prominently, I think, this happens in the playful chapter titles – “Forest for Rest,” “Suggestive Jesting,” “Decisive Incising” – which, I think, try a little too hard to be clever. Are the titles supposed to be wordplay in the style of Ali Smith and, if so, what is their significance to the story? Unless I’m missing a deliberate joke here in the midst of a story that otherwise deals with a serious topic, the puns in the chapter titles are lost on me. Let’s have another example, where Peach is taking a shower:

I open my eyes when the water fills my nostrils. I wrap my toes around the chain and tug until the plug pops and stops stopping the water from filling the tub to the top. I watch the pools of grease floating on the water. White. Whirling. Floating. Slowly. Unashamedly. Enjoying the water. My water. I allow my aching face to smile slightly when they get sucked suddenly down the hole. Not my hole.

I find the paragraph a great piece of associative, stream-of-consciousness writing, strongly reminiscent of the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus is urinating on the rocks at the beach:

Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehement breath of waters amid seasnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases. It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling.

I’m hesitant to bring in a quote from a male narrative which, worst of all, deals with the phallus, yet I think both Glass and Joyce write paragraphs like these beautifully if only Glass would have avoided the last sentence in her passage (“Not my hole”). I find it an awkard, half-comedic addition, like the chapter titles, yet similar sentences recur throughout the novel in various short phrases that reinforce what something definitely is not. It’s an inherent part of the novel’s style, it seems, so perhaps it carries more meaning that I can read into it. From a feminist perspective, the above example is of course more than fine: it’s 2018, so why keep censoring the female genitalia, so I definitely do not find fault in its representation. The problem I have with it is in the style of writing that is sometimes patchy. However, considering the novel as a whole, the language of Peach is a fresh deviation from the norms of social realism. Even if the language doesn’t always work, Peach is a daring experimentation in prose, the kind of a novel that I am always eager to try out.

The final beef I have with the novel is that, being quite macabre in its depictions of violence, its power relies rather heavily on shock value. Take away the gruesome bits, and there’s not much left of Peach. Without giving out too many spoilers, the grisly language reaches its culmination in the most violent scene in the novel, a goosebumps-inducing moment of revenge. Therefore, the novel reminds me strongly of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Both are works of fiction by aspiring artists still testing the waters. Both works depict the abuse of the female body. Both works hit with a splash of blood (and a slab of human meat) which is always a sure way to get a reaction from the audience. Both works are fascinating, but with their evident symptoms of early works. Yet, if the heights Shakespeare reached after Titus tell anything, Emma Glass is an author to look out for.