Thursday, 6 October 2011

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

Somewhat of a literary sensation when published in its native Germany, Wetlands managed to cause quite a stir when it appeared in translation over here. Its protagonist, Helen Memel, is an emotionally damaged eighteen-year-old recovering in a hospital proctology unit from an infected shaving cut that occurred when depilating an area not traditionally kept hair free.

The book never leaves the hospital or Helen’s head, and the next two hundred pages consist of a rant against the over hygienic de-odorised concepts of modern femininity, a catalogue of Helen’s erotic experiences and predilection for anal sex, and a desperate attempt to bring her estranged parents back together which culminates in an incredibly painful complication of the original wound. It’s fair to say that Wetlands is not for those of a queasy disposition.

At the heart of the book are Helen’s feelings of rejection from her parents. Her father his absent, she has no idea what he does, and her mother, with whom she lives, once tried to kill herself and Helen’s younger brother, leaving Helen behind. That said, her memory of this is distinctly hazy, something that can be attributed to both shock and the fact that she’s done her best to blot out the experience with drink and drugs.

One of her ex-boyfriends, Michael, was a small time drug dealer who kept his stash in a fake Coca-Cola can. He mistakenly leaves this round Helen’s friend’s house – not a good idea, really:

We blew off school, bought some red wine at a kiosk, and left a message for Michael on his answering machine: “If you’re looking for cola, we found a whole case in Corinna’s room. You won’t get pissed if we start drinking without you, will you?” ... Then began our race against time. The idea was to take as many drugs as possible before the first one took effect and before Michael showed up. Anything we didn’t slurp down we’d have to give back. At nine in the morning we starting taking two pills at a time, washing them down with wine. It didn’t seem right to snort speed and coke so early in the morning, so we made minigrenades out of toilet paper. Half a packet each for us – which is half a gram – poured onto a little piece of toilet paper, skilfully wrapped up, and gulped down with lots of wine.

Michael is not a happy bunny when he finally turns up, not that Helen and Corinna are in any state to care:

I guess everything started to kick in. I can only remember the highlights. Corinna and I laughed the whole time and made up stories set in a fantasy land. At some point Michael came by to pick up his can and cursed us out. We giggled. He said if all the stuff we’d ingested didn’t kill us, we would have to pay him back. We just laughed. Later we puked. First Corinna, then me from the sound and smell of hers. In a big, white bucket. The puke looked like blood because of the red wine. But it took as a long time to figure out why it looked like that. And then we realized there were undigested pills floating around. This seemed like a terrible waste to us. I said: “Half and half?” Corinna said: “Okay, you first.” And so for the first time in my life I drank someone else’s puke. Mixed with my own. In big gulps. Taking turns. Until the bucket was empty. A lot of brain cells die on days like that.

Helen is certainly one of the more interesting literary creations that I’ve encountered, and although Roche’s prose deliberately sets out to shock, she does have some valid points to make but ultimately, they are lost under a welter of bodily functions and a rather clunky translation by someone whose day job is writing for Playboy. It’s certainly not a book I'll forget in a hurry, though, and I'm not sure I'll ever look at an avocado in the same way again...


  1. I remember this coming out and not being caught by reviewsat the time but yours make it sound quite good I may pick it up looking for some more german lit for german lit month ,all the best stu

  2. Stu, thanks for the comment. Once you get past the hype and some of the more outré passages, it’s not a bad story, although I can see why it generated some extreme reactions!

    I’d not heard of German Literature Month. Is this an annual event?