Review: Desire by Jessie Cole

“I’ll always be drawn to writing about the thing I least understand,” writes Jessie Cole early on in this delicate memoir. The thing in this case is the desire of the title, but over the course of the book it becomes something more: belonging, connection, the places where we are best able to understand ourselves.

Sexual desire is fraught territory for Cole. Childhood trauma — the death of her father and sister — and a string of less-than-generous relationships have left her with a bodily reaction to sex. Faced with physical intimacy, her body begins to “crumble”, it “responded to the possibility of a sexual encounter as though it was a bonda fide threat … [desire] made me sick”. She meets an older man in the city where her brother lives and cautiously they begin a to-and-fro, a long-distance game of withholding and tentative advances that eventually becomes exhausted. Meanwhile, it’s the late 2010s and the country is oscillating between devastating fire and flood, as even the relationship with the land that we had presumed to be secure breaks down.

Desire is a book that tells its narrative effortlessly and with expert control, but its revelations are more ambiguous. Much of the memoir’s length depicts in raw detail Cole’s thoughts and feelings about this relationship with the older man. While living it she tries to understand it, through the lenses of attachment theory, of contemplating whether her attraction to an older, less-than-wholly available man is as obvious as having something to do with her father, or whether it is an expression of trauma-repetition. Cole’s memoir pithily explores how relationships are a narrative, a process of meaning-making:

Each person in a romantic relationship creates meaning from their experiences. The story that emerges, like all life stories, is an imaginative one, built around the real. In harmonious partnerships, is each imaginative vision just more closely aligned?

Desire then is much like grief; I was reminded a lot of Natasha Sholl’s recent grief memoir, Found, Wanting, which is similarly about constructing meaning around traumatic events.

There’s relatively little sex in Desire, minimal consideration of what makes bodies attractive to each other. Instead Cole’s writing delves deeper though, setting up in its beginning an investigation of “skin-hunger”, the absence of which Cole experiences as “a kind of deprivation”. Equally Cole explores the gendered nature of that bodily desire, in which men’s expression of desire is too often violent and extractive. When an energy healer suggests that Cole has been abused while unconscious, Cole writes, “he could say this shit to any woman and it would probably be true”. “Amongst all this violence and sexual transaction,” she comments later, wondering if sexual trauma has left its mark in women’s genes, “it seems a miracle that female desire has been so resilient”.

The book though offers a counterweight to the heterosexual romantic relationship. This is Cole’s relationships with her family, friends and her home country in the rainforests somewhere in northern New South Wales (all the locations in this book are vague, an interesting nod to privacy and universality). Cole describes an idyllic, and more importantly, embodied presence in the forest, a place where notably there is noone (or at least no person) to gaze upon her. Days pass in which she doesn’t see her reflection; her experience, she writes, was “wholly sensory”. In the forest, her relationships are caring, nourishing, and mutual. When she turns to considering the devastating, painfully visceral impacts of fire, flood and eventually COVID-19 on her home, the bow she draws between romance and climate breakdown is a bit of a long one, but it is at least an affective attempt at making new meanings. There is some exquisite, profoundly moving nature writing in these sections, whether it is describing her walks through the forest or along a beach, or writing about her family’s oddball family of pets. Riffing on Richard Powers’s Overstorey, Cole writes in the middle of the pandemic:

Everything in the forest is the forest. Systems of care, systems of connection and community. Like the roots of the trees, intertwining. Tending nature, we are tending ourselves. The neighbour’s cows got in and trampled my flower garden. It looked wrecked, but in the days that followed, some of those plants, miraculously resilient, began to reshoot. The virus showed us how quickly we could change.

Desire leaves these two strands unresolved. Will Cole throw herself back into the turmoil of romance? Will we put the planet on a safer course? These are the unknowns we have to carry with us, but, she suggests, the important thing is the capacity to change.

Gay rating: not gay.

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