Welcome to a new series - the best kind, where I just add to it when I want, not like that horrible attempt to read the Amazon First Novel Award shortlist (uhh more on that later).
Once upon a time, none of us knew anything about sex. I know right, hard to remember. Inevitably, some kid will spill some horrible factoid on the playground and dump you head long into a word of genitalia, urges and couplings. But you don't really learn about sex from other kids, you learn about it from books, or at least you do if you're a literate, curious-type. Not Our Bodies, Ourselves kinds of books but dirty books. The kinds of book that need to be read clandestinely between the stacks at the library.
First up on the plate: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I have a great story behind this one. As you can probably imagine, I was a total bookworm as a child. After grade eight my mom asked my social studies teacher for recommendations as to what I should read over the summer. He recommended Pillars of the Earth because, ya know, it's about British history, right?
Well, let me tell you NO fourteen year old should be reading this sick shit. It is one of THE sickest books I have ever read. It's kind of great but there is so much rape and lust in this 973 page monster that I remember re-reading several passages with wide-eyed terror. And it was an Oprah pick in 2007!
For those of you not in the know, Pillars of the Earth is set in mid-12th century England in the fictional market town of Kingsbridge. Its twisted, wind-y, multi-generational plot (think Sarum) centres around the building of a cathedral and is set against the troubled political climate of the time. The cast of characters include the wicked Lord Hamleigh, Lady Aleina (who refuses Hamleigh's hand), Tom (a poor stonemason) and his companion Ellen, Tom's son Alfred (an impotent, sadistic monster who marries Aleina) and Jack (Ellen's son whom Aleina loves).
I think what disturbed me about the book is that the central female character is raped not once but twice. And maybe it's just me but the rapes are lasciviously and elaborately painted as if they are important decoration in the book. Hamleigh rapes Aleina when she refuses his hand and forces her brother, Richard, to watch (what?!). Later, Aleina is raped by her cruel husband, Alfred (or at least he tries to). Richard, understandably tired of seeing his sister frisked by jerks, offs him.
There's a lot more to this book than non-consensual sex - Gothic architecture, the question of whether royal power is absolute, the workings of a market economy etc. It really is an entertaining way to learn about British history. But does this lesson need to include the objectification and degradation of women?
Sorry to be Debbie Downer here. I promise I'll pick a more sex-ific book next time..Fanny Hill anyone?
The Pillars of the Earth / Ken Follett / 1989 first edition / PB, 2007 (Oprah's pick edition)