Author: Susanna Freymark
Pan Macmillan RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Have you ever lost your sense of self? Been so worn down emotionally by life in all its surprises and challenges that you don’t know how to find you amid all the darkness? I have. And my guess is you have too. Or will one day. No matter how strong you are, there are always moments when your self-worth fractures and you wonder how you can feel good about being you again. Susanna Freymark’s own experiences of losing and finding herself were the inspiration behind her novel Losing February. What she delivers is at times confronting and evocative, but despite the strong and sometimes disturbing images, it’s a strangely addictive read.
Bernie, a divorced mother of three, lives in a converted shed in Byron Bay. She works part-time as a journalist for the local paper, gets on well with her ex-husband and has strong female friendships; she’s moving on and making a life for herself, even if she has buried any grief over her failed marriage.
When Jack, an old friend from university, gets in touch, it’s as if a spark has caught. Bernie had feelings for Jack long ago, but never followed through on them; now, it seems, he felt the same way. Although he’s married with two children, he tells himself (and Bernie) there’s no harm in “friendship”. Of course, “friendship” is code for an emotionally intimate and tortuous affair of words that stops just short of involving sex; to Bernie’s increasing frustration (despite her guilt that he is, after all, married) Jack says the relationship has to remain sexless. In too deep, Bernie can’t let go of a relationship she knows deep down is never going to work.
The relationship inevitably ends, leaving Bernie emotionally destroyed and wracked with guilt. Is she really that undesirable? First, her ex-husband lost interest in making love with her and now Jack wouldn’t cement their affair physically. A driving need for validation leads Bernie to seek solace in all the wrong places – such as Jack’s brother, David. “Pretend I’m someone else,” he says. And she does, realising too late that it’s only made her feel worse about herself. What follows is a series of increasingly dangerous and twisted sexual encounters as Bernie throws herself into the world of internet dating, cybersex, all the while trying to feel better about herself. Perhaps if she punishes herself enough, the guilt and darkness will go away, and she’ll be able to forgive herself for the “friendship” she knew was wrong from the start.
Like any addict, Bernie hides the extent of her actions from her family and friends. Caught up in a sexual frenzy involving sex with strangers, group sex, and fetish and swingers’ parties, she masks her true, vulnerable self with a complete loss of inhibition. As she says at one point, “It was all fake, I was fake”. Haven’t we all felt that at some point? Even if we haven’t gone this far to create a mask?
Written in the first person, Losing February is raw reading. The reader is more than a detached observer, watching Bernie stumble around in her mess; the first person narrative means a certain degree of emotional involvement with Bernie, which contrasts with the discomfort felt while reading the more graphic and confronting scenes – this is not erotica. This discomfort is heightened by the knowledge that the characters in these scenes have no emotional involvement – for them, this is pure, physical sex, no emotion. The juxtaposition of emotional involvement with the protagonist and her own attempts to have no emotional involvement with her sexual partners is disturbing.
As raw and discomforting as it is, Losing February is also poignant, perceptive and honest. Freymark writes with acute perception, especially when it comes to defining depression and self-worth; Bernie describes herself as “losing colour” – what a powerful and accurate way of describing depression (I had to write that down for later reference). As I read, I kept thinking, “This is so real. It has to be grounded in fact.” Then I read Freymark’s back story … and it is. Losing February is labelled fiction, but really, the fiction masks a memoir; Freymark says writing her story as a work of fiction enabled her to write without the boundaries that a memoir would have imposed. To me, writing this way would have the dual advantage of freedom and freeing.
An engrossing read from start to finish, Losing February is available from good bookstores and Pan Macmillan Australia. This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.
Bookish treat: A hot curry – saucy, spicy and sometimes a bit much to handle.