It’s not very often that one comes across a book with more to say than the words it contains. And though it’s been out of my hands for a few days, Tiffany Reisz’s The Siren hasn’t stopped talking.
The Siren was my introduction to erotic literature. Although I suppose that’s not entirely true; The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by Anne Rice (writing as A. N. Roquelaure) passed through my hands many years ago. I say passed through because I only remember them fleetingly. I think my tender brain forcibly forgot the sentences as quickly as I read them. I remember some vague images, and being shocked, oh how shocked at such depravities! …and intrigued. But I never picked them up again. I didn’t understand that world, and didn’t want to. I’ve toughened up a bit since then. And it takes much more to shock me than a beauty forcibly awakened from her sexual slumber.
So The Siren is really better classified as my introduction to modern erotica. And I admit to some anxiety over opening up this new chapter. Because just as I have changed, so has the genre. What new depredations were in store? How much further would I be pushed? I knew the pushing was inevitable. Probably some whipping as well. Could I stand it? Or would I be broken? There was only one way to know. In I dove.
I was instantly confused. Um, the air quality in London during the Industrial Revolution? Smoggy and sooty do not smutty make. Where were the deviants? Where was the sex? I should clarify something at this point: I LIKE being confused. I LOVE it. I can’t get enough of authors who refuse to give me what I think I want, who, with a few words, can destroy my expectations and say “Nope. You don’t get to figure this one out in advance.” Here it was, page one, and instead of floggings I was given foggings. From that moment, I was all in.
That’s not to say floggings didn’t happen. There’s plenty of punishment and an arousing abundance of naughty adventures. Reisz has described her work as “literary friction,” which seems almost benign at first. It’s a play on words (for which she has a delightful knack) that gives a sense of familiarity to her own particular brand of brashness. But beneath the clever turn of phrase lies a startling truth: The Siren is nothing less than a profound work of art.
Reisz gathers together art, shame, pleasure, religion, regret, sex and pain to craft one of the finest arguments for love that I’ve ever read. The persuasion doesn’t come from a particular sentence, or character, or event: it lives and breathes throughout the book like a sentient creature. It’s not the kind of love that exists in fairy tales, or dusty tomes of courtship. Love in The Siren is a bloody, vicious thing. It is also radiant and selfless. And there it is, what The Siren sings to me: that love is all these things. It is as concrete as a smack on the ass, as insensible as breath on the back of a neck. It is what strengthens us, and what makes us weak. It is what destroys us, and enables us to survive.
And the characters in the book need every tool in their kit to keep going. Each one is broken in some way. Some are seeking redemption; others seek revelation. And the road they take to get there, indeed, if they get there at all, is nothing but rough. But that’s as it should be. Reisz is as stern with her characters as she is with her readers; and in the end, we can do nothing but ask for more, please.
That’s not to say that The Siren is all brooding and no bantering. The dialogue snaps with electricity, and Reisz has truly created a heroine for the ages with the saucy Nora Sutherlin. Reisz knows that we don’t have to understand a character to love them; in fact, often what connects us to them is the mystery that lies just out of reach, beckoning us further. And Nora is a master (or rather, mistress) of temptation. Her motives aren’t always clear, and her actions don’t always make sense, but we are caught up, knowing the payoff, when it comes, will not only make sense of Nora, but ourselves as well.
This is perhaps the greatest gift that The Siren gives: it illuminates us. It heals us. And ultimately it leaves us better than how it found us. A daunting task for any author, but one that Reisz achieves with brutality, sensitivity and grace. Oh, and her little red riding crop, of course.
Captivating and compelling, The Siren is as many-colored and deep as a bruise in full-bloom, rising from the page and burning hot. It has left its mark on me, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book in the Original Sinners series,The Angel.
Or should I say, let it get its hands on me.