— This review originally appeared in The Monthly.
In an era when even supermarkets stock the sadomasochistic confections of EL James, it seems strange that a literary work exploring erotic themes would elicit anything more than the lifting of an eyebrow. But the sexualisation of children is truly our last taboo, and Marie Darrieussecq’s latest novel, All the Way, takes us into dangerous and unsettling terrain.
Aged ten when the book starts and 14 or so at its end, our protagonist Solange is an unvirginal virgin on a mission to go ‘all the way’. As Darrieussecq writes after Solange has finally fulfilled the promise of the title: “When she puts her underpants back on, she sees a tiny spot of blood. Hardly worth making a fuss about.” Yet All the Way, divided into three parts provocatively titled ‘Getting It’, ‘Doing It’ and ‘Doing It Again’, is almost certain to cause a fuss.
Set in a little French town called Clèves, the story follows the lives of Solange and her young friends – their bravado, misinformation and embellishments (“when I want to be I’m a total nympho”) – who are both thrilled and repelled by the yearnings of their bodies.
The object most coveted by Solange in her mother’s curiosity shop is a “box of secrets”: “A little chest with labelled drawers: my birth bracelet, my first lock of hair, my first dummy, my first tooth … everything organised chronologically in cute compartments.” The novel is a series of glimpses into Solange’s own box of lustful secrets – looking up the meanings of words like “whore” and “fuck”, her first kiss and her escalating sexual encounters.
Set against the fumbling experiments with boys her own age is an inescapable, fraught relationship with her older neighbour and babysitter, Monsieur Bihotz. Solange seeks simultaneously to wound him and to be loved, while Bihotz yearns to both possess and protect her: “‘I’m going mad … I’m going mad,’ he repeats, as if he were pleading for help.”
Echoed here is the tragic dynamic of Lolita. In an inversion of Nabokov’s take, we are locked into the perspective of Solange, and the agency is always with her. This is a tale about a young girl using men in pursuit of her own pleasure.
All the Way is a darkly comic work that is likely to cause outrage and indignation from the usual quarters. But it cannot be said to appeal to base prurience or perversity. The work was reportedly written in response to comments by Nicolas Sarkozy on the (un)importance of literature. Darrieussecq highlights literature’s ability to explore the dark corners of our own collective box of secrets, in which children are neither as naïve nor as oblivious as we wish to believe.