The Nether Regions is a marvellous novel, coupling linguistic beauty with humour, psychological fascination and intensity.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Nether Regions is Sue Gough’s first adult novel, but she isn’t new to writing. She has written 17 books, including three novels for teenagers, a number of teaching manuals, book and theatre reviews, and short stories. She also runs writer’s workshops, is part of the Queensland Arts Council, does mentoring work and still does the occasional freelance job. I asked Sue Gough whether the process of writing for adults was different, and she said that it was a huge step for her, more dangerous and requiring far greater complexity than writing her young adult novels. The risks taken by Gough, and the complexity of her work is obvious in The Nether Regions, which takes as its narrator someone who has lost all facility to communicate; a serious stroke victim looking for a way out of the prison of her body in which she feels her mind, and perhaps her soul, is buried alive. Gough told me that her writing of Beverley was based on her ultimate phobia – being entirely powerless. Beverley’s mind functions perfectly, but her body is in a near vegetable state. She can blink, but cannot move, speak, or communicate in any way. Her voice guides us through the novel, set primarily at a hydrotherapy pool in a mock new age class run by the comic physiotherapist Sue Mindberry. Mindberry’s aspirations to be the next Deepak Chopra are juxtaposed with the heady desires of the menopausal, overweight and mentally unstable women in her course. While the women conduct their affirmations in the pool, inside the mind of Beverley, we find a series of other worlds, short stories built around the lives of her fellow participants turned husband murderers, gourmet cooks, painters, Loden type mischief makers, visionary nuns and brain damaged sex fiends, all looking for a way to find themselves, and in the process help Beverley escape into the Buddhist death she so desperately craves.
Using the post-modern trick of a narrator creating her own narrative, Gough uses self-referential words designed to remind the reader that this is a fictional world: “her mind appeared to be freewheeling outside the parameters of their shared metanarrative”(102), at one point breaking through Beverley’;s story to add in a different narrative voice: “Poor Beverley, who’s here in spirit, is another story. Looking in from the outside, how can I tell her tale? It’s a story lacking in high drama, all too real to be very engaging.” (312). Beverley’s loss comes as a series of unexpected strokes, the final blow coming while trying to commune with drunk aboriginals in the park outside her hotel. There is self-parody in Beverley’s struggles with language and failure to get her work published, or in the funny writer’s retreat on Norfolk island which features a ‘menopausal Canadian’ who does something called ‘young adult fiction’; and the “sagas of self-promotion, action and plotlines”.
The Nether Regions tackles the big issues which Gough claimed a moral responsibility to include, such as those random moments which change everything – Beverley’s stroke, Carla’s loss of smell, Merle’s accident, Gertrude’s knowledge of her husband’s affair: “Life. Its ins and outs. Its random reinforcements. Its very arbitrariness – its inconsistences.” Along with the loss is gain – Sister Mary Joseph’s vision costs her the certainty of religion but gains her clarity of mind. Carla’s loss of smell gains her a sense of her physical body. Gertrude loses her husband but gains herself. Merle’s gain in prophecy, her sense of “poipose” as she loses her inhibitions and possibly her sanity, and even Beverley, who gains in hearing what she loses in vision. The writing is rich and sensuous, words teasing the reader, leading us through the deliciousness of Carla’s goose relieno, Asian Almond Jelly and truffle tapanade, which Gough says comes out of her love of food and her occasional tongue-in-cheek foodie columns for the Brisbane Courier Mail. As Beverley tries to recall the sensuality of life, she goes through a series of smells: “Blackcurrents – that thin veil of astringency masking a top C of sweet acid. The sexy turpentine musk that lurks at the back of mango’s lusciousness. The blank, slightly oomy flavour of banana, and so on as she goes through a rich catalogue of scents and flavours both gorgeous and horrific, moving from cliché comfort smells to no-holds-barred bad smells. There is sound as Sue Mindberry moves her class through the movements of each planet in Holst, pan pipes, Pachobel’s Canon and sentimental rainforest muzak designed to help the girls on their way to Nirvana.
Merle, whose name was chosen by Gough because it is also the name of a small black bird, makes for an unlikely saviour, driving Sue Mindberry to rage while she gyrates and curses her way through the pool classes. According to Gough, she is Beverley’s alter ego – the uninhibited freedom Beverley would have loved to have had in her life. Her Sally Bowles impression has her kicking the shiny black wings on her stiletto heels and leading Beverley out of the “shit” to the tune of Bye Bye Blackbird. There are other themes too; male versus female, the richness of the aging woman, her children and often her husband gone: “a cruel mythology that women sink into an uneventful sunset after fifty.”(313); the pain of loss and how we cope with tragedy and impending death and above all, love. The painful love we feel for our children, our lives, our gods and our selves; the love we all need. For American readers, Gough acknowledged that the plethora of Australian icons from Roger Woodward, John Bell and Barry Kosky through Dame Edna, Lindy Chamberlin and King Island double brie might be confusing, and that perhaps she would have to write a North American version, although I suspect that many of the bigger names would be familiar to all readers. There were moments when I found the writing a little too self-referential, shaking me out of my sympathy and identification with Beverley and teasing me with its reminders of the real world. However, this is a minor fault in what is otherwise a marvellous novel, coupling linguistic beauty with humour, psychological fascination and intensity, as in: “Her thoughts formed themselves into distinct masses. Every component existed as perfectly as before but no longer in linear form. The concepts and ideas pulsed as pleasing fractals, Mandelbrot sets kaleidoscoping within their discrete spheres.”(172) or “I will make her my alter ego, my pure being, my divine fool, my quicksilver link with the nether regions. I will fire her into space towards the stars and she will go snaking and oscillating out from me like a harpoon, an anchor chain, a radio signal.” In the midst of its pain, its black humour and its poetry, The Nether Region provides its readers with a compelling story which moves forward quickly and is hard to put down.