Monique Roffey’s seventh book is an idiosyncratic beast: part literary psychodrama and part erotic misadventure, it’s neither pure fantasy nor down-and-dirty realism, but a weirdly compelling amalgam of a sexy fairytale and a portrait of a troubled marriage. Jane and Bill are (sort of) happily married: they’re definitely in love, but their sex-life has never taken off, and though they’ve each separately (apparently) resigned themselves to that – Jane resorting to a secret fantasy life and Bill accepting that he can’t have it every which way – the cracks are bound to show. And, of course, show they do, when Bill and Jane meet Lilah. Now, Lilah’s not your common-or-garden home-wrecking seductress, but an otherworldly imp who’s eyed this pair up down the pub and decided to start stirring. In fact, she’s a great-great-granddaughter of Adam’s first wife, Lilith: the wanton, baby-stealing harlot of yore you’ll remember from your Judeo-Christian apocrypha. And like Lilith, who refused to kowtow to old Adam, Lilah’s no slouch. She wants her fun, and so, sneering at poor ‘unfucked’ Jane, she entrances Bill and the two embark on one hell of a twenty-four hour adulterous carousel. This – as you might expect – topples the rickety edifice of Bill’s and Jane’s marriage, but also and unexpectedly (because what kind of a book would it be if it were all that straightforward?), it makes Lilah’s own carefree life rather too complicated.
So: it’s an erotic misadventure because, not to tiptoe around anything, it’s chockfull of sex: you name it, these guys do it, and what they don’t actually do, they get off on thinking about doing. It’s no-holds-barred, graphic as all hell, and, as the POV shifts between the three main characters, very much led by the women. And seeing as one of those women is an actual sex demon, as crafty and cunning and joyous as she is dastardly, it’s not replicating a load of male fantasy tropes – Lilah’s up for anything and Jane’s not far behind, and Bill, willing and manly as he might be, has, at best, only the most tenuous of grips on the steering wheel. If you’re looking for egalitarian sexy times in fiction, this seems like a pretty good place to start. More interesting, though – or so we thought – was the exploration of Jane and Bill’s relationship. Roffey takes the idea of love and, like the Greeks, spits it into eros and agape (desire and possession versus unconditional and selfless); what Jane feels for Bill is agape (it’s pure, it’s adoration, it’s ‘holy’) but what Lilah represents is full-on eros. Roffey’s getting us to consider whether one relationship can accommodate both; whether love can work as a unified concept. It’s not a new debate, but it’s not run of the mill in contemporary fiction, either, and it’s one to which, probably, most people can relate: why do we love this person in that way? How does marriage and day-to-day living, particularly once one’s out of one’s twenties and thirties, fit into the eros/agape balancing act? The trio of narrators is really effective in working this out: the ways in which each character (mis)reads one another and how they each judge the developing situation make for a compelling read – Roffey sets up a tricky and delicate dynamic between them that’s not only credible (even given that one of the characters is a sex maniac from another world) but also genuinely tense, as there’s no real telling where it’s all going to end up. The main potential negative for us was the otherworldly aspect, but the writer carries it off: the other characters accept Lilah with a combination of incredulity, bewildered compliance and confused revulsion that manages, mostly, to neutralise our scepticism by reflecting it – and, of course, not only is there nothing wrong with ancient demons in literature per se, but the whole context of erotica gives it an added legitimacy. Succubae? Circe? Talmudic mythology? You know what we’re talking about.
Any Cop?: We’re not habitual erotica readers here, but the cross-genre marital strife and the mythological shenanigans makes this stand out. You might not want to loan it round at work, but you’ll probably race through it in a sitting or two. (And then, you know, loan it round at work.)