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The Stain by Rikki Ducornet
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This wonderfully strange and hormonal B-movie of a novel has the feel of an uncensored fairy-tale, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's pulsing with onanistic nuns and Satanic alchemists and hirsute dildo-salesmen; and yet the whole thing somehow also works as a dark metaphor for the experience of a girl on the cusp of adolescence, discovering, with the usual mixture of excitement and terror and awe, the mysteries of life, death, puberty, sexuality and religion. It reads something like an Angela Carter rewrite of Diderot's The Nun, and it should have been filmed by 80s-era Pedro Almodóvar.

The girl in question is Charlotte, whom we follow from birth to age 14 or so, sometime towards the end of the nineteenth-century in a rural hamlet in France's Loire Valley (at the time, the author was living in Le Puy-Notre-Dame). There is no great compelling story-arc: the action advances episodically through encounters of almost magisterial weirdness, in which wide-eyed naïf Charlotte grows up and tries to make sense of life as she is buffeted in turn by the various eccentric inhabitants of the village. The scenes and the characters are over-the-top, often ludicrous, but it's all very self-aware and witty, not to mention deliciously dark and extreme – it can be ridiculous but it's so much fun.

Ducornet's prose is a delight: lexically rich but also able to throw out passages of condensed wit – such as this thumbnail description of villagers during a flood:

In the villages of Louerre and Louresse, desperate families huddled together on rooftops and looked on helplessly as their livestock and an occasional arthritic ancestor drowned.

It takes both skill and humour to withhold the verb to the very end of the sentence there, and there are many similarly nimble phrases studded throughout the novel, going off like little depth-charges in your brain. Although you always feel that Ducornet's in control, it isn't what you'd call a restrained prose style: on the contrary, she's pretty much turned all the dials up to eleven throughout. Here's how we're introduced to Sister Malicia, the apotheosis of every nightmarish schoolteacher-nun that you've ever read about or encountered:

…a cadaverous creature as human as a broom handle, her arms knotted across her flat chest to protect the inverted nipples that dented the flesh like the cruel traces of tacks, her pale blue eyes lying loosely in their sockets like faded minerals in sagging boxes […she] carried her lovelessness with majesty.

Subtlety is clearly not the point here: Ducornet is having fun, fun, fun. Like an illustrated mediaeval manuscript, her narrative is booby-trapped with moments of unexpected obscenity or grotesquerie that jump at you out of nowhere.

Returning to his bed, the Devil's insinuations hot in his ears, he sinks his teeth into the palpitating sugar-plum of Dreamland, and straddling the corpulent finger of sleep, thrusting hard, fucks Time.

What's that all about? God knows, but there's a lot of sentences like that in here. I was grinning and scratching my head a lot – appreciatively. You have to admire the audacity of someone who can describe a nun's anus as her ‘rosy cyclopean nether eye’ – and how many other writers, searching for an adjective to describe the Virgin Mary's breasts, would plump for ‘quince-shaped’?! This is deft but this is also bonkers – a combination that I happen to love. Shall we have more quotes? Here's the village Exorcist contemplating his latest ritual:

But first the convent must be cleansed, the floors and walls washed with vinegar. He'll have to grease some snakes, salt the shit, tattoo a pregnant sow, fuck a three-horned cow, burn myrrh…

Although it sometimes seems like craziness for craziness's sake, you never stop feeling for poor Charlotte at the heart of the novel. The book is full of provocative symbolism and apparent magic – but like all proper fairy-tales, that's not what it's ultimately about. It's about learning to navigate the very real dangers and pleasures of reality. Behind the inventive and balls-deep insanity, in the end The Stain invites wiser, more grown-up readers to share one character's ‘intimate conviction that everything that is, is visible. That the universe is knowable, if only you dare look.’ ( )
  Widsith | Sep 3, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0394542843, Hardcover)

In The Stain Rikki Ducornet tells the story of a young girl named Charlotte, branded with a furry birthmark in the shape of a dancing hare, regarded as the mark of Satan. "Sadistic nuns, scatology, butchered animals, monkish rapists, and Satan" (Kirkus), as well as the village exorcist, inhabit this bawdy tale of perversion, power, possession, and the rape of innocence. Ducornet weaves an intricate design of fantasy and reality, at once surreal, hilarious, and terrifying.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:32 -0400)

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