Rachel Haze is the author of a local erotic novel which teasingly proclaims on its back cover that “there are far more than fifty shades.” The reference will be clear to most readers, even if you have never succumbed to the lure of E.L. James’s über-bestselling creations. I have never had the dubious pleasure of reading the books, but in general I have absolutely nothing against erotic fiction of any kind, and I have delighted in a few local titles of the genre in recent years. The anthology of short stories, Adults Only, edited by Joanne Hichens, or the Girl Walks Into series by Helena S. Paige come to mind. However, the book that still haunts me is Donvé Lee’s fierce and exquisitely written An Intimate War. It captivated me because it felt authentic and was touchingly erotic.
On the front cover, Rachel Haze’s The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes promises the following: “Sexy. Intelligent. Erotic.” And it comes with an intriguing mystery surrounding its author. Her publisher, Melinda Ferguson, said in a radio interview that the person behind the pseudonym is a well-known South African writer who prefers to remain anonymous so as not to tarnish her respectable literary reputation. The heroine of her novel, The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes, has no such qualms, and no hesitations to share any of her secrets, erotic or otherwise, with the reader.
Alex is in her late thirties, once divorced, but in a stable relationship with Mark. Yet she continues obsessing about her university lover Nicholas with whom she had a turbulent affair. When the old flame suddenly reappears in her life, visiting from Canada in Cape Town on his way to a conference, Alex’s seemingly steady existence is turned upside down. She decides to rent an old house in a remote place in the Karoo and to return to her early passion for painting. She wants to capture desire on canvas. To help her with the project, she hires a former lover and a local heartthrob to be her nude models.
The narrative oscillates between the present in the sleepy dorpie where Alex is frustrated with her artistic efforts and where the erotic tension between the models rises with the Karoo heat, and Alex’s memories of her student days with Nicholas in Grahamstown and her attempts to forget him in the aftermath of their explosive breakup. And all the while Mark is waiting for her to rediscover herself and Nicholas is only a sext message away.
Haze explores different shades of sexuality with confidence. But occasionally she lost me when summarising large chunks of Alex’s backstory. Specifically, a few of the descriptions of the psychological makeup behind her actions did not ring true. However, The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes holds your attention long enough to make you want to know what happens to Alex in the end and, most importantly, at times it simmers with the kind of eroticism which will appeal to many readers.
The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes
by Rachel Haze
MF Books, 2018
An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times on 10 August 2018.