The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

First up, a bit of a TRIGGER and SPOILER warning. This post will discuss a reasonable amount of detail about this book, and it’s fair to say that it covers subjects like rape, anal sex, violence, bondage, sadomasochism, gender re-alignment and a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff. So, not a light, sunny read, really…

Where to begin? I first read Angela Carter back in the 1980s, and I liked what I read. I’m aware that Carter was an uncompromising author who pushed the boundaries and is not going to be a cosy read, but I was keen to re-engage with her work after quite a gap and as this one was published in 1977 it seemed the ideal place to go. Or perhaps not.

Broadly, the story tells of Evelyn, a young Englishman who decamps to New York; however, this is no regular city, but one descending into apocalyptic chaos. Gangs abound, whether people of colour or feminist groups; the rats are taking over; violence is the order of the day; and Evelyn’s behaviour is not particularly pretty in itself.

After a tortuous affair with a glamorous dancer, Leilah, which ends in unpleasantness and disaster, Evelyn heads off to the desert where everything goes to hell in a handcart. It was here I began to lose interest; suffice to say that Evelyn encounters the formidable Mother, a many-breasted entity; undergoes gender realignment; gets captured and repeatedly raped by a mad, one-legged poet; and so on and so on. I confessed I glossed over a lot of what was happening, because not only was it fairly unpleasant, I just wasn’t finding myself drawn into the story or caring about anybody in it.

I found myself wondering if I’d gone a bit prudish in my old age; after all, I read Burroughs and Kathy Acker in my teens without any problem, so did I just react badly to this because of the content and was I unable to see past this to what Carter was saying? And what actually *was* she saying?

This may be the problem I had with the book, because I don’t think actually that’s very clear. Evelyn is not a pleasant character as a man, and as any reader is probably going to anticipate, halfway through he becomes the Eve of the title. As a woman, the kind of treatment meted out to him is perhaps the kind Evelyn would have been happy to serve up to any woman he encounters – and certainly he’s pretty brutish while still a man. If Carter’s intention is to highlight the bad way that men treat women, then she wraps it up in a load of apocalyptic pseudo-mythology that for me really didn’t work.

Another problem was the writing; some of the early prose was excellent, really evocative and beautiful, conjuring up the crumbling city of New York and its denizens in a very evocative way. However, I found it often descended into clichΓ©, particularly when dealing with the various sex acts, and the overall narrative seemed to lose coherence too often for me, becoming quite clunky in places. I really struggled to engage, but I couldn’t, so I lost patience and skipped through much of the book.

It may be that this book has dated badly and would have been more groundbreaking or innovative in 1977; or it may be that I missed something I was supposed to get out of it. Certainly, many online reviews rate “The Passion of New Eve” really highly, but it’s not one for me. I was sorry about this, because I’ve enjoyed Carter’s writing in the past; and indeed I was lucky enough to meet her at a film showing/signing back in the 1980s (and I still have the signed book to prove it!)

I rarely write negative posts because I try very hard to read books I’m going to enjoy, or get something out of, or that will stimulate or move me, or educate me, or make me think, or make me laugh, or make me cry. Unfortunately, this did nothing for me at all, except make me wonder what the point of it all was. So alas my first ‘bad’ read for ages was for the #1977club – let’s hope the next one is a bit more satisfying….

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