It’s not that With My Body is a perfect book, but it is certainly compelling and a bit unusual for the narrative devices it uses. For one thing, our female protagonist is never named, and everything is written in a space somewhere between first and second-person. Sentences sound like this: “You feel too much, think too much; the intensity of the fantasies, every night before sleep.” She is writing to herself, about herself, remembering a time during her teenage years.
With the story set primarily in Woondala, Australia — though also bookended by an adult existence in England — the protagonist feels dissatisfied with the person she’s let herself become. She’s nervous, prone to anger and detachment, and wishes she was a better parent. She and her husband could have a better marriage, but she’s unsure of what to do, that is, until she starts writing down the story of her past.
Once, long ago, you were made tall and strong by the shock of someone who cherished women and was not afraid of them, who revered their bodies. Men like that are extremely rare and when a woman finds one she recognizes profoundly the difference in the lovemaking and is forever changed; that man becomes a paragon by which all others are measured and you are lucky, so lucky, to have found it, once.
Each chapter is instead a “lesson” and begins with a short bit of advice, followed by the story itself. The advice is from an old book she discovers, A Woman’s Thoughts About Women, on the shelves of the man she meets at nearly seventeen. The author is anonymous, but she is drawn in by the woman’s easy voice, “a certainty you’ve rarely known.” In this way, With My Body is meant to mirror this reading material.
Everything leads up to or stems from her relationship with a writer named Tol, a man who has kept himself in a semi-secluded house in order to get some work done. He lives near the home her father and step-mother share, and she only discovers him during one of her many school break bike-rides that intentionally limit her time with the step-mother.
He looks up when he is done as though he is looking for approval and his lashes are so dark and you can see the little boy, suddenly, the child he would have been, the vulnerability he rarely shows; that you want to hold in the cup of your hands, here, now; that you want to bow down to and murmur on with your lips.
It is easy to forget how young she is while reading because even before this meeting, she already seems older and observant of the world. She hungers for affection, yearns to absorb all the good she can because it all seems so fleeting. There is a lot of truth to her thoughts, however limited by experience that they are, and though, yes, she is underage and he is not, it never comes across as creepy. Others might disagree, especially those who have never felt this way at any age, but when one takes into account the intensity of teenage emotion, especially when it comes to first love, a mutual love… Yes, it is easy to forget her age. This “paragon” becomes quite the person for which all of her future unknowingly strives. No wonder she is disappointed by everything that came after when, once, she had the complete, solitary attention of a man. And he, the solitary attention of her.
His eyes shine as he looks at you, his funny little scrap of a bush thing; his voice cracks and veers into something else. ‘From love. And with that comes the best kind of sex. Because it’s tinged with a … a reverence. It’s almost like a holiness fluttering in you both.’
While With My Body is a story of romance and of awakening, it is also a story of damage. Every character punishes themselves in some way, and they often have huge blind spots where it comes to their personal mental health. So many of them do not know how to express their desires — not just the sexual ones — and their shame is often a problem. There’s a lot going on here beyond an illicit affair.
Some of Gemmell’s writing can get repetitive — “bush thing” and “rangy” appear countless times as descriptors — and occasionally, the sentence fragments lose their art and just lie there as unsatisfying pieces. For the most part though, I really did enjoy this book. I found a great deal of beauty in the relationship, even with its mysterious disappointments. Tol and the girl are studying one another as they enjoy themselves — they want to learn how to be treated well. I understood her yearning and the transformative power of the right kind of love, at exactly the right time. We should all be so lucky.
(Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by Harper Perennial. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews. This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.)