I have just finished reading Hot House Flower by Margot Berwin. I was browsing at Galignani’s yesterday, hoping to come across something good to ward off the chill of the wet November day, and idly picked the book up, probably attracted by the garish pink and primrose cover. The plot summary seemed rather trite – why does so much women’s fiction involve a sad and lonely divorcée on the brink of being brought back to life by a devastatingly handsome man?! – but it happened to mention plants, and I happen to be an unabashed plant lover. So I sat down on the floor with my back to the bookshelves and opened the book, determined to find out how Lila Grace Nova “inadvertently became interested in tropical plants” and how on earth that led her to the Yucatan jungle. That, at any rate, had nothing trite about it, and I was quite willing to be swept up in an adventure, especially if it involved rare and beautiful plants. I am a Gerald Durrell fan, after all. A novel that began each chapter with a pen and ink drawing of a fern and a heading on a tropical plant couldn’t be all bad, I reckoned, and bought the book.
I should have taken heed, however, of the warnings contained in the book’s reviews. The use of the word “psychedelic” in particular should have aroused far more misgivings in me. A woman unexpectedly falling in love with tropical plants, the gift of a rare fire-fern cutting (which, incidentally, I checked and does in fact exist), a previously friendly man breaking into a shop in an access of greed and making off with the most valuable plants there, a journey of self-discovery to the vivid steamy world of the Mexican jungle – that I can relate to and enjoy. But I confess I struggled with the improbable moss-covered floors of the Laundromat, with the shifting, slippery, vaguely threatening nature of Armand’s personality (it is significant to me that I never once managed to picture what that man looked like), and with the tediously didactic tone of his incessant comments to Lila.
And then, Lila’s arrival in the Yucatan. What exceptional food for poetry in the lime-green sunset across the ocean, in the moonflower vine glowing whitely in the deep darkness of the rainforest, and in the mysterious prowlings of the beautiful, savage panther! But poetry is exactly what we have not got. Instead, there is only an increasingly nauseated feeling, first triggered by the inexplicably disturbing undulating fingers of Armand’s wave. Enter the jungle, and you enter an atavistic world of filth and decay, crawling with prehistoric armadillos and cycads that have survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. Terra firma literally liquefies beneath your feet as you squelch your way through a morass of rotting undergrowth, and the thick wet air is filled with the stench of corruption and the demonic howls of the monkeys. Here is the Lost World of Conan Doyle. Here is the hot, reeking source of Frida Kahlo’s imagination. Here is the nineteenth century’s nightmare of Man’s regression brought shockingly to life.
And everywhere, the emphasis is laid on sex. But there is nothing remotely sexy about this particular kind of sex. Despite Armand and his wife’s embarrassingly long embraces, with her face buried in his midriff, you are quite spectacularly unprepared for the sheer force of the sexual instinct that permeates this primeval world. Starting with the plants, of course. From the giant blooms of the moonflower (the plant of female fertility), to the swollen sticky buds of the tortured sinsemilla (the female cannabis plant, symbol of the unsatisfied female sexuality) and its male counterpart, the mandrake (born, according to legend, from the semen of hanged men), the Yucatan morphs into one huge throbbing sexual organ. Its influence takes over Lila’s mind with hallucinatory strength, and her whole being strains towards the satisfaction of her overwhelming animal lust.
In fact, “psychedelic” is without a doubt the only word capable of adequately describing Margot Berwin’s book. It is one long sex-driven, cannabis-fuelled hallucination and I can only echo Elle reviewer Ben Dickinson and ask: what on earth was she smoking when she cooked this up??? Its effect on me is similar to what I imagine The Picture of Dorian Gray and A Rebours produced in the breasts of their Victorian readers, and if it were even half as well written as those two classics of Decadence, I would overcome my nausea and venture to call it brilliant. As it is, my own strongest desire is to stand beneath a cold cleansing shower and scrub away the taint of having read it, and then immediately set about writing a healthy book about plants, just to show it can be done.
© Florence Berlioz 2010