Review: Adults Only – Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality edited by Joanne Hichens

adultsonlycoverThe stories in this anthology have been selected from some 150 entries submitted for the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories competition. As with all such collections, the quality of the twenty-two individual pieces varies. The authors range from first-time-published to award-winning practitioners of the genre. Additionally, in this particular case, every reader’s sexual preferences will strongly influence their reading of these diverse contributions. Sex in all its permutations is a highly personal experience, as is writing and reading about it. Hats off to the editor and all the authors for their daring explorations of the mine-fields of our sexualities.

As Aryan Kaganof’s narrator states, “there is no love that is not an echo”; he also understands that “real sex happens in the head”. Erotic stories are like lovers. They will either satisfy you or leave you wanting.

No doubt a few of the contributions will bring many readers out of their comfort zone and will have you reading through your fingers. Others will excite you. Some will delight with their humour or tenderness. There is a lot to be learned. Who would have thought that Woolies would emerge from the anthology as the preferred place of choice for sexy lingerie shopping? Or that the smell of semen reminds some of peeled potato? I didn’t even want to know what blunt knives could be used for. Every reader will find something to please or disturb them. No matter what, brace yourself: Adults Only is one hell of ride for most of its journey.

After reading the opening story, Alex Smith’s “The Big Toad”, I knew that I would never be able to look into my kitchen cupboards without apprehension, and perhaps a tiny bit of envy. I might have to get some Jungle Oats to liven up the scene inside my predictable cupboards. Arja Salafranca’s “Post-Dated Sex” made me look at post-it notes with fresh eyes. Her story approaches that beautiful space between lovers where words “dissolve” and become something “instinctive that moves against them.” Beauty is also the subject of Donvé Lee’s “The Mirror”. Lee is the author of An Intimate War (2010), one of the most erotic local novels of recent years. Her story shines with a similar intensity and rare honesty.

The competition’s winning entry, Nick Mulgrawe’s “Turning”, is a well-written and a worthy choice, but it did not move me as much as Ken Barris’s captivating “Louka in Autumn”, or Anthony Ehler’s shattering “Breaking the Rules”, or Alexander Matthews’s illuminating “Entropy”. Efemia Chela is a young writer to watch. Her “Perigee” is as bold and astute as her recently Caine Prize-shortlisted “Chicken”. She writes a lush and supple prose that is a pleasure in itself.

The language of sexuality is a very tricky thing to master. What will arouse one person, will do nothing for another. It’s so easy to fall into clichés and vulgarity. So it was quite refreshing to smile at phrases like “sex has always been at best pedestrian – Tim walks all over me” (in Christine Coate’s “The Cat’s Wife”, a tale of a bored wife seeking out adventures which will make her fly, literally and otherwise), or to admire the eloquence with which Justine Loots describes the sadness of an encounter between a prostitute and a young inexperienced man: “One of his wings, if he has wings at all, is torn at the edge. It won’t affect his flight much, you won’t even see it, but it’s there all the same.” The magic realist twist of Loots’s story “Uncaged” brings a wonderful dimension to the entire book. Strange beasts roam the world she creates; one can never be sure who is the prey and who the predator.

Not every use of the word “cunt” will have the same impact of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And yet I was reminded of it in Aryan Kaganof’s powerful story “Time Out With My Destiny”. With every paragraph the first-person narrator lures you in, manages to surprise and capture something unique, and ends on a shattering note. A “wow story”, my husband said when I read it aloud to him.

The stories in Adults Only capture different aspects of our relationships: from tender intimacy to raw sex, and beyond, to abuse and rape. Wamuwi Mbao’s “The Ninth Wave” tells of that moment when wanting more from a relationship breaks the little that the other is prepared to give. Alan Waters’ debut story “A Threesome in the New South Africa” recounts a hilarious encounter between a middle-aged man, his younger girlfriend, and a Rastafarian of intimidating proportions. Not every longing is clearly identifiable. In Dudumalingani Mqombothi’s “The Streetwalkers”, the search for his lost father leads a man into the arms of a sex worker.

Adults Only is a fascinating read which showcases the diversity, audacity and vibrancy of South African fiction.

Adults Only: Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality
Edited by Joanne Hichens
Mercury, 2014

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 12 September 2014, p. 10.

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