Flesh of the Peach (2017) revolves around a character who seems both lured and repelled by the sickly scented effects of the strangling past from which she is unable – and unwilling – to escape.
When we meet Sarah Browne, a twenty-seven-year-old British artist of mixed-race descent, she is living in New York and has just lost her job. Her estranged mother, Maud Browne, has recently died of cancer, and, to makes matters worse, Sarah’s love relationship with a married woman has tumultuously ended. Feeling stuck, heartbroken and restless, our protagonist does this very American thing: she leaves everything behind and takes to the road, heading to New Mexico, to spend some time alone and start over.
Her mother had been a successful painter, and Sarah was left with a house in Cornwall, a large inheritance, and a cabin in a remote valley in Santa Fe, where Maud used to retreat to. Upon arriving at her mother’s New Mexico cabin, in the middle of nowhere, Sarah embarks on a doomed affair with Theo Coronado, a young man who lives nearby with his mother.
The book follows Sarah from New York to New Mexico, then Parris, and finally Cornwall. However, our protagonist’s road trip is much more an internal one. Stuck with grief in the middle of an existential crisis, Sarah is forced to face the difficult relationships that had shaped her. The more Sarah strives to move as far away from her past as she can, the closer it gets.
The story is narrated in third person, under Sarah’s perspective, in choppy sentences and short chapters. Mixed with ruminations on Sarah’s present and flashbacks to her childhood, we uncover our protagonist’s troubled past. Raised in a dysfunctional household, by an indifferent mother and an abusive aunt, Sarah never felt as though she belonged. She feels forever stuck “on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind.”
Interspersed with her ruminations, we have mental lists she makes, throughout the book, on how she intends to spend her inheritance: among other strange ideas, she will “build a house out of dogteeth”; buy “huge slabs of carcass from best-beloved cattle”, hang them in a cellar, and then “frighten herself with their bodies”; and, most importantly, she will “buy herself a new self”.
The highlight of your book for me lies in its tone: it is steeped in anger. Our protagonist is all the time lost in the grey zone between what her childhood could have been and the raw memory of what really was. Sarah is stuck in her anger for her past and her grief for the present. She is constantly on the verge of some form of violence. She is overweening, pretentious, conceited and vain. At the same time, she sees herself as a complete failure, and acts accordingly just to prove her point. She seems indifferent and bored – and cruelty may be the best outlet for her boredom. Sarah’s grief is all-encompassing, and toxic. She barely acknowledges that she is struggling to remain afloat.
The fragmented narration tries to emulate the workings of Sarah’s memory and her disconnection from reality; however, the excessively lyrical writing style has a blurring effect over the narrative, depriving it of its momentum. Sarah’s unravelling feels removed, artificial and anticlimactic: it feels more like a clean, straight line than like a gradual movement. Moreover, we find ourselves so immersed in the protagonist’s self-loathing, that the atmosphere feels just as boring as the protagonist is bored herself.
There is nothing new in the story of a character who seeks loneliness as she tries to reconcile herself with a troubled past. An achievement in narrative voice could have made your novel stand out from the rest in this trope. As it is, though, your book feels overwrought: despite the frequent references to disturbing facts, the atmosphere feels flat, deprived of any sense of unease.
Unlikeable female characters are also easy to be found – look at Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015); Novel on Yellow Paper, by Stevie Smith (1936); Good Behaviour, by Molly Keane (1981); Gilgi, by Irmgard Keun (Gilgi, eine von uns, 1931, tr. Geoff Wilkes in 2013); or See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt (2017), to name just a few. Differently, though, Flesh of the Peach falls short from creating a fully fleshed out unlikeable character; and it falls short from creating a powerful narrative voice that connects the reader with a character he truly despises. Sarah just doesn’t inspire any feelings in the reader. She is her grief, and nothing beyond her grief: that leaves no space for further depth or complexity. She is unidimensional, too wordy and removed (and she has no sense of humour) – as if she had been strangled by the somewhat self-conscious, sickly scented writing style.
We are told what Sarah feels, but we cannot feel along with her. And I would have liked to truly despise her; I was prepared to feel utterly disgusted by her. I wanted so much to have felt the glass shards, the taste of salt, sweat and blood. The sharp blade cutting into the flesh of the peach, metal and tenderness. I would have liked to have truly felt.
“Hope is the thing with barbs that never let’s you go. Or is that loneliness” – Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory
“What still holds true is that love letters burn so well.” – Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory
“Nostalgia was like a vine, strangling her, sickly-scented. Maybe a plastic vine. Maybe a vine strung though with fibre optics, transmitting bits of something all the time. Interference. Glitch.” – Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory
“The most beautiful place she had seen was a land crossed while under the influence of a blank disgust where love and her crimes were seared away from her.” – Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory
“Water in the chambers of her heart – a heart, which she reminded herself, was like a slimy fist in her chest clutching only at itself – where it had boiled and thundered and fed nothing. Leached at her too. There were channels and caverns inside her. Blind salamander lived there, evolved to dwell without light.” – Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory
“Or, instead to say, you know how the light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach us? Well if our star suddenly died we wouldn’t know immediately. That delay is where we live out our time.” – Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory
“A girl like a war is always ongoing. Often denied to be so. If someone bothered to press their ear to the skin they would have heard it there a constant droning sound.” – Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory
About the book
- Freight Books, 2017, 272 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 3 stars
- This book was kindly sent to me by Freight Books for review.