I read this novel in one sitting, horribly fascinated by the push and pull of forbidden sexual attraction in a tale that unleashes the monsters
from the closet, filling the hot Majorca nights with passion and lust. The landscape of olive groves and the damp sea, always so salty and lucid, is a special one for Jenn and her scholarly husband, Greg, on holiday from their busy lives in England. This island holds a sacred place in memory, where darkness intoxicates and the shifting loyalties of marriage are not so easily surrendered to the excesses of youth culture.
Walsh shepherds us through a nightmare of sexual compulsion as manipulative Jenn sees pain in her desire and heartbreak. Sex precipitates the tidal urges of guilt reflected in the inner-workings of Jenn’s mind. High on the terrace at Villa Ana, Jenn watches the boys with straggly beards and bodies, scorched from a summer living off the land. As the sun rises high on Deia’s overcrowded beach, everything about this vacation from city life feels off-center, from Greg’s apparent distractedness to Jenn’s hesitant welcome of Emma, her spoilt and somewhat self-centered stepdaughter.
The last thing Jenn wants while on holiday is to be stretched or challenged. But she’s been looking forward to the arrival of Nathan, Emma’s new boyfriend, while also relinquishing some of her “me time” with Greg. Jenn admits she’s been living in ever-tightening anticipation, treading on eggshells as she constantly adjusts to the “weather vane” of Emma’s moods. Jen hopes that “falling in love” might give Emma a different perspective and encourage her to think beyond the confines of her own selfish needs.
Walsh’s writing is exquisite and her plot deceptively sleek, reflecting the stark, natural beauty of Majorca and the sun that warms the dirty-gray Mediterranean into “a shimmering cerulean.” Jenn first lays eyes on Nathan in Villa Ana’s kitchen. His hair is thick and black, and although he’s only seventeen, he looks like a man. While Emma is held in thrall, hanging on Nathan’s every word and onto his world, Jenn who can’t get out of her mind the picture of his shoulders, the “tight yolk of his muscle.” Her attraction to him “coils around her prospective instinct,” slowly strangling all her parental and marital concern.
In lesser hands, what might have been a tawdry escapade in sordid roleplaying becomes something beautiful, accomplished and dark. Walsh’s strength is her ability to elicit sympathy for her protagonist. Although Jenn’s choices are suspect, we can’t help but root for her in a series of contretemps that lend the story a compelling, page-turning quality. We feel sympathy for this aging woman who laments her declining body, this “cruel trick of nature.” In one pivotal scene, she’s shattered when she discovers Emma’s skimpy black knickers and “his residue” that seems to cover them.
Jenn’s mind loops, every train of thought twisting back to Nathan. She pictures him gone and starts to come undone. For his part, Greg seems blithely unaware, more concerned with Emma’s well-being, especially after she has an accident while out walking on Deia’s cliffs. Nathan is an experienced young man with a very clear sense of what he wants and what he will accept. The push-pull between Nathan’s desires and how he conducts his love life are as realistic and compelling as Jenn’s middle-aged descent into unbridled lust. Nathan is proud to be infatuated and proud to bask in the admiration he attracts, spending hours first with Emma on the beach and then with Jenn, swimming in the Mediterranean’s cool, calm waters.
As Jenn’s pulse soars, her fate drags through her as dense and suffocating air. The ending is harrowing. Walsh never lets up, her characters literally writhing with discomfort and culpability, perhaps altering the entire landscape of their lives. Everyday concerns are swept away as Jenn finds herself immersed in her terrible guilt, clinging to the wild hope that Greg still loves her.