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I discovered ‘Taming the Beast’ by Emily Maguire during one of my bookstore browsing sessions last month. The summary of the story at the back looked interesting, the story of the author’s life looked interesting and the book was on sale and so I thought I will get it. Also, as Emily Maguire was Australian and as I haven’t read many books by Australian authors (unfortunately I know only a few like Peter Carey, Colleen McCullough, Steve Toltz and James Vance Marshall) I thought it will be interesting to explore some Australian literature. I finished reading it today (it looks like my reading is going strong this new year – this is the second book that I have finished in less than a week :)). Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

At the tender age of fourteen, Sarah Clark is seduced by her thirty-eight-year-old English teacher, Daniel Carr, and becomes entangled in an illegal, erotic, passionate, and dangerous affair – a vicious meeting of minds and bodies that ends badly. Devastated by grief and longing, Sarah embarks upon a series of meaningless self-abasing sexual encounters, hoping to reclaim the intensity of that first relationship. Then, seven years later, Carr unexpectedly returns and Sarah is drawn again into a destructive coupling. Now that she is no longer an innocent young girl, is she strong enough to finally tame the beast within her?

A modern Lolita, Taming the Beast is an emotionally unflinching and alluring tale that introduces a powerful new writer.


What I think

The first page of the book went like this :

Sarah Clark felt like a freak for two and a half years. It started when she received a leather-bound copy of Othello for her twelfth birthday and ended when her English teacher showed her exactly what was meant by the beast with two backs.

In between, she read every one of Shakespeare’s plays and then moved on to his sonnets, before discovering Marlowe, Donne, Pope and Marvell. With peers who read nothing but TV Week and parents who were inclined towards the Financial Review, Sarah was forced to conceal her literary leanings. She hid poetry anthologies under her bed and read Emma by torchlight, the way boys her age read Playboy. For the first two years of high school, she came top of her English class without opening a single school book. It wasn’t necessary since the curriculum consisted of a few familiar texts, plus comic strips and newspaper clippings.

Then on the first day of the third year of high school, Sarah met Mr Carr. He was unlike any teacher she had ever encountered. For the entire forty minutes of his first class he spoke about why Yeats was relevant to Australian teenagers in the year 1995. In the second class, Sarah put up her hand to make a comment on something he had said about Hamlet. When he called her to speak, she started and could not stop. She stayed in his classroom all through lunch, and when she re-emerged into the sunlight and the condescending stares of the schoolyard cliques, she was utterly changed.

Mr Carr began an active campaign to keep Sarah’s love of learning alive. To prevent boredom, he brought her books of his own from home and gave her a note that allowed her to access the senior section of the library. Every novel and play and poem was discussed in depth. She had never received a better compliment than when he told her that he knew she would love a particular piece because it was his favourite too.

How can you resist a book after a first page like that? If you are one of those readers, who, like the heroine in the movie ‘Alex and Emma’, reads the last page of a book after reading the first page, this is what you will find :

…life is a constant withering of possibilities. Some are stolen with the lives of people you love. Others are let go, with regret and reluctance and deep, deep sorrow. But there is compensation for lives unlived in the intoxicating joy of knowing that the life you have – right here, right now – is the one you have chosen. There is power in that, and hope.

Perfect, isn’t it? I felt that the book followed perfectly the advice given at creative writing schools and workshops – have an interesting first paragraph to grab the reader’s attention, have a wonderful first page and have an insightful, beautiful last paragraph. Emily Maguire seems to have mastered this art. Now we have to discover what she has done in between these two pages. (The back cover also had a quote about the author from the Sydney Morning Herald which went like this : “Emily Maguire embodies the great romantic myth of the writer who emerges from nowhere, fully formed.” This played its own part in sucking me into the book).

The pages between the first and the last tell the story of Sarah Clark in four parts – the first part which describes the initial seduction of Sarah Clark by her English teacher Daniel Carr and his abandoning of her, the second part where Sarah leaves her family, becomes a promiscuous young woman and goes with every man around and works as a waitress in a restaurant while studying in the university at the same time, the third part where Daniel Carr comes back into Sarah’s life and how that changes her life, and the fourth part, the ending, which has by now become predictable and clichéd for readers, in some books – where the author forces a tragic event to win the sympathy of the reader.

I found the first part of the story where Daniel Clark seduces Sarah Clark, told quite realistically and we can see why Sarah is attracted towards her teacher. It ends in heartburn for both of them and our heart suffers too, because of that. The second part meanders without any meaning and reason. When I first tried writing a novel, I showed one of the initial drafts to a publisher who called me for a meeting with one of the editors. When we discussed about the book, the editor shared some of his thoughts on it. I remember one particular comment of his. One of the chapters in the draft started with this line – “It was another New Year’s Eve. I hadn’t met Suzie in a long time.” The editor had written in blue pencil above that line – “Neither have we!” 🙂 I had tried doing a George Eliot by ignoring the heroine for a significant part of the book (George Eliot does the same to Dorothea in ‘Middlemarch’). When I read the second part of ‘Taming the Beast’ I felt something similar – that Emily Maguire ignored the story for the whole part and just described Sarah going around with different men and frittering away her life. Some of what Sarah does is not even reasonable and realistic and defies the imagination. I felt the whole part meandered along without any purpose. And when Daniel Carr makes an appearance in the third part, one feels that the second part was just a filler, to give context and to while away the time, till Carr makes his re-entry into the story.

After Daniel Carr makes an appearance in the third part, the story picks up some steam initially, and there are a few magical moments, but after a while it meanders along and unfortunately, takes Sarah Clark and Daniel Carr away, in its wake. Daniel Carr who starts out as a handsome, interesting, fascinating teacher gets transformed into a pale imitation of himself :

“She found Daniel on a sofa…Stubble covered his cheeks, coarse and almost white. There was a packet of salted peanuts wedged under his left thigh. His eyes were closed. One arm was twisted at the elbow, pointed over his head to the back wall. The other arm hung over the edge of the sofa, his fingertips skimming the floor.”

It is almost a description of a junkie. Sarah, from a beautiful, inquisitive, intelligent student and a rebellious girl who cares more about her dignity than money, becomes this :

“She was much thinner than in his dreams and she was wearing more clothing too. She looked different all together. Older, smaller, tireder. Defeated.”

The transformations of Sarah and Daniel reminded me of some lines that I read in the introduction (by Graham Coxon) to Herman Hesse’s ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ that left a deep impression on me. They went like this :

“…even when we become lost in the crazed volatility of what we think of as freedom, reaching the very edge of our own flat world, gazing petrified over the edge at the black expanse of our own demise, we are but a change of hardened heart away from the innocence of our beginnings, from peace.

…how far down the dangerous roads of our early adult lives does the pull of a simpler life begin to tug at our sleeves…

…life and the material world are designed to seduce, and we ourselves are designed to be seduced by it. We career, uncompromisingly, through our early lives, proud of our strength and youth but never treasuring it. Maybe that’s how it should be, that we squander it if only to mourn it later when we don’t feel so invincible and have to savour each day of our late adulthood.”

Another interesting character in the story is Jamie who is Sarah’s long-suffering best friend and sometime lover, who is her Man Friday and who is always there for her when she is going through a crisis. After the misadventures that Sarah has, Jamie feels that has hasn’t done enough in his role as protector. Towards the end of the book, the conversation between Sarah and Jamie and what Jamie thinks of the situation is described like this :

She drew in her breath and the tears flowed. “My life wasn’t supposed to be this way. It wasn’t meant to be like this.”

Jamie couldn’t have agreed more. When the little dark haired girl had boldly met his eyes across the classroom in year seven Geography and smiled in a way that made his throat hurt, he had known instantly how it was supposed to be. He was supposed to take care of her and make sure she was never hurt or sad or scared. In return she would love him forever and never make him hurt or sad or scared. If Jamie had taken better care of her, neither of them would be in this position. It had all gone so wrong.

There is an interesting conversation between Sarah and Jamie where Sarah explains the unique position Jamie occupies in her heart. It goes like this :

“I wish you wouldn’t be so hostile,” she said.

“How am I supposed to be?”

“You could be supportive. You could be my friend.”

He snorted. “You want me to congratulate you?”

“Look, Jamie. This may not be what you want to hear, but I assure you it is the greatest compliment I’ve ever given. I value you as a friend a million times more than I value you as a lover. As a lover you are part of a very large and not particularly prestigious group, as a friend you’re it. You’re my one and only.”

Unfortunately, the role of a protector and best-friend is not always satisfying to Jamie, because he feels that he is always second best in Sarah’s heart. I have seen a few real-world Jamies and so my heart went out to him.

As the blurb says, ‘Taming the Beast’ looks like a modern-day ‘Lolita’, with some changes – the story is told from the perspective of the heroine, there are lots of steamy scenes, the backdrop is Australia and the author is a woman. I haven’t read ‘Lolita’ but in some ways the book reminded me of ‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (where a similar kind of relationship between a young girl and an older man is explored), ‘The Alchemy of Desire’ by Tarun Tejpal (which explores the relationship between two lovers – I found the first part of the book quite beautiful) and the movie ‘Anatomy of Hell’ directed by Catherine Breillat (which talks about the relationship between men and women across the ages, told from a woman’s perspective). The book is good in patches, but unfortunately it meanders on for quite a bit. However, the book redeems itself by having many lovely passages throughout, including those in the first and last pages.

The book also has frequent references to literature – novels and poems – and Sarah and Daniel frequently quote poetry (including the beautiful (and what some might call clichéd) Shakespearean lines – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate”) which form a lovely context and give a deeper meaning to the happenings of the story.

The book also had an interview of and an essay by Emily Maguire at the back. When asked about her education, Maguire says : “I eventually got my MA from the University of New England (New South Wales) after dropping out of school at sixteen and spending many years traveling and working nonskilled service jobs…I’ve had many service jobs, including McDonald’s manager, fashion sales assistant, pharmacy assistant, and steakhouse waitress.” It intrigued me and made me wonder how much of the book is inspired by Maguire’s own life, because her heroine Sarah Clark, seems to have had a similar life. In the essay where Maguire talks about the relationship between her, her heroine Sarah and Jane Eyre, she says this :

I want to quote Jane Eyre one final time. This is the passage that has become most meaningful to me as a woman and as a writer, but to which I never paid any attention until I read it with Sarah Clark in mind :

Women are supposed to be calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer…

This not only describes Sarah perfectly, but puts into words something I had believed my whole life. Having grown up after the feminist revolution, I’d always been told that girls could do anything boys could do, that men and women were equal in every way. This wasn’t just dogma for me – I felt it. I knew I was not defined by my gender, that the things I thought and did were expressions of my “Emily-ness”, not my femaleness. Yet in recent years I had come to realize that other people would view me as a woman first and a person second regardless of how I saw myself, and that these same people would project onto me their ideas of what “woman” meant. Thus I was faced with the prospect of disappointing expectations not of my own making : to be a mother and homemaker, to be demure about sexuality, to value my appearance over my intellect. I never understood why I didn’t experience my femaleness in the way mainstream culture said I should, but there was nothing more frustrating than having to defend myself as a woman in order to be treated as a human being.

I loved that passage!

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Why do you live like this?”

“Why do you live like this?”

“Have you read Jane Eyre?” she asked.

“Have I…” He was audibly surprised, but recovered quickly. “Ah, yes, yes, I think so, at school. A long time ago.”

“Do you remember why Jane leaves the comfort of Thornfield Hall even though she will be homeless and poverty stricken? Why she voluntarily reduces her station in life from governess to beggar?”

“I don’t…” He chuckled into her hair. “I wasn’t expecting a test. I haven’t studied.”

“She left because her dignity was worth more to her than physical comfort.” Sarah turned around and looked up into his face. “And that’s why I live like this.”

Tiny shards

Jamie had long ago stopped reacting outwardly when Sarah did something like this. Inwardly, it was like a tiny shard of glass stabbing him in the heart. So small that it didn’t really hurt at all, except that there were now so many tiny shards that his heart kind of ached all the time, and every little new one made it that tiny bit worse.

Freedom

She wanted to feel the total freedom of being owned.

Loneliness

When Daniel was at work, Sarah experienced a loneliness of such intensity she almost wished he had never returned. Before he’d come back into her life she spent most of her time alone at her flat and never felt so bad about it. It was disconcerting that being in love felt lonelier than aloneness.

On Love

“The thing I never understood about love is that it can’t be quelled, like lust can. With love, if you follow its call, if you give in to it, it just gets worse. The more you have, the deeper you go, the more you need.”

The Ocean

“The Ocean,” he said, “is a whole world in itself : huge plains spread out across the ocean floor, long mountain ranges rise toward the surface, with deep valleys cutting through them. There are active volcanoes, erupting down so deep that we on the surface would never know. It’s a trap, the ocean. It’s cool and comforting and so you go in farther, you go in deeper. And then you’re dead. Water is tricky like that. If you’re burnt or hot or aching, it will heal and soothe and calm you. But also, it can freeze you to death or boil your flesh. Crush or suffocate you.”

Other Reviews and Further Reading

I read two other reviews of Maguire’s book, one of them which raved about it and another which didn’t have good things to say about it. You can find them here (for a different point of view)

Raving review (from Confessions of an idiosyncratic mind)

Not so raving review (from Serendipitous moments)

You can find a portrait of Emily Maguire in the Sydney Morning Herald article here.

Final Thoughts

I found ‘Taming the Beast’ good in parts – I loved, especially, the lovely passages that Emily Maguire frequently came up with. But overall, it was not a very satisfying read, because though the book had a strong start, the story didn’t pan out satisfactorily and it was difficult to understand the motivation of some of the characters and difficult to believe the kind of stuff that they did. I will be keeping an eye on Emily Maguire’s future books though I hope that she tones down on the steamy scenes and focuses more on the story and the literary references and continues writing those lovely, insightful passages.

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