Books

Cover of book: Desire: A Reckoning

Jessie Cole
Desire: A Reckoning

Desire: A Reckoning, Jessie Cole’s second memoir and fourth book, is a leafy work. Leafy for its setting in the northern New South Wales forest where Cole grew up and still lives, and also for its delicate interleaving. The work’s terrain is desire, which it evokes through connections with place, and how solitude, connection and attachment are woven through our lives and torn by detachment.

Desire sketches a life’s spaces and textures. These include Cole’s beloved and deeply known forest (“the love of my life”), the houses she lives in and visits, and skeins representing journeys, especially the repeated journey she makes to an unnamed city where a man 22 years her senior becomes her lover, though this is a word he does not use and their relationship resists naming.

There are also figurative spaces: brinks, precipices, axes – a geography and physics of attachment and the fraught angles of ambivalent connection. The territory of love is planted with anxiety and courage, doubt and fear. And there is hope that collapses “like a false floor”.

The title’s focus on desire is itself a kind of false floor. Although one path through the work concerns Cole’s connection with the man referred to as “the older man” and “my lover”, this is part of the ecosystem of an intricately enmeshed life. The history of Cole’s sexual and romantic relationships is the background, while her tender and intimate bonds with her children, mother, friends and pets are foregrounded. Around this hovers the trauma of bereavement: Cole’s sister and father both died by suicide, a “hand grenade”.

There is also the body’s history, which Cole writes about with a direct and curious gaze, as if it too is a surprising and dangerous other. The body “keeps the score”, to borrow the title from psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s book about trauma, which is listed in an appendix. The body with its shakes and rashes, pain and inflammation, migraines
and hives, methodically communicating what isn’t spoken.

Cole had her children young, delivering her first son – “my strapping baby … blue and floppy” – with a dramatic coda of the inept and painful treatment of a retained placenta. Although Cole doesn’t use the phrase “medical trauma”, the shock and violence of the emergency reverberates. In a metaphysical – as well as a literal – sense, this moment is about both attachment and detachment.

The image of her teenage sons setting off into the world with their backpacks is one echo of this rupture. This is an almost unspeakable loss that coincides with the arrival of the older lover. In a more material sense, Cole’s memoir suggests, if obliquely, how unhealed birth trauma might affect someone’s response to touch. Her deft lover’s practised fingers and the doctor’s hands plunging to extract the placenta echo one another. What might consent look like in birth, in sex and in memoir?

Cole’s quest is split between befriending her body and pushing through its refusals. This is part of a series of expansions and contractions. A somatic pattern of “burning hurt, the squeeze of containment, the pressure created by keeping my feelings in” seems required by the relationship, which pairs an almost frosty politeness with sexual heat. The lovers seem at odds with what sex means for them. They cleave, one holding close, one pulling away. Cole wants to overcome her body’s resistance, while her body resists being silenced.

At the heart of Desire is an account of “attempting to be loved by a man who was detached”. The man himself appears as a wooden figure whose most emotional moment is when he rails against an unruly passionfruit vine in his garden – “it shits me”. Punctilious and mechanical, he seems a man of minimal insight. Of the pattern of emotional withdrawal Cole finds agonising, he can only say: “Sometimes I go quiet.”

This is perhaps a result of literary pixilation designed to preserve his anonymity, yet it makes it hard to understand his incapacity to overcome a fundamental detachment that Cole’s brother – more fully realised in only a handful of tender sentences – observes. The lover makes sure he has the wheat-free bread Cole prefers when she visits and dries her bath towel in the sun, but these gestures feel like crumbs.

Cole drafts the memoir as the relationship unfolds – “a terrifying, highwire way to write a memoir” – and notes the ethical issues of writing a public account of everything she can’t discuss with her lover. I wondered how apt its subtitle “a reckoning” was. A reckoning is more than a thinking-through. It is driven by a desire for revenge or punishment and requires hindsight.

The direction of any harshness is less the “older man”, the self-described “passive kind of guy”, than Cole herself. Wanting to explore “stubborn areas of privacy” avoided even in this “age of mass-sharing”, she details her emotional and physical reactions, sometimes with embarrassment. The last leaves of the book shift towards transmuting shame to a celebration of bravery and openness, placing Cole back in the landscape that nurtures her, threatened by floods and fire. She observes our dependency on the more-than-human world: “If the forest isn’t solid, are you?” In an expansive coda, Cole experiences the “silver touch” of the waterhole and frames a prayer: “May I mend whatever it is I have wrecked.” 

Text Publishing, 272pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "Desire: A Reckoning, Jessie Cole".

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