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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Charlotte Roche

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To purchase Wetlands

Title: Wetlands
Author: Charlotte Roche
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 220 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Wetlands - US
Wetlands - UK
Wetlands - Canada
Wetlands - India
Zones humides - France
Feuchtgebiete - Deutschland
Zona umide - Italia
Zonas húmedas - España
  • German title: Feuchtgebiete
  • Translated by Tim Mohr
  • Feuchtgebiete was made into a film in 2013, directed by David Wnendt, and starring Carla Juri

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Our Assessment:

B : graphic, bizarre -- and suprisingly tender

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FASz . 13/4/2008 Ingeborg Harms
FAZ . 1/3/2008 Patrick Bahners
Globe & Mail . 28/2/2009 Lisa Carver
The Guardian . 7/2/2009 Lucy Ellmann
The Guardian . 25/7/2009 Nicola Barr
The Independent . 17/7/2009 Emma Hagestadt
The LA Times . 31/5/2009 Diana Wagman
New Statesman . 5/2/2009 Alice O'Keeffe
The NY Times Book Rev. F 19/4/2009 Sallie Tisdale
The Observer . 1/2/2009 Sophie Harrison
San Francisco Chronicle . 1/5/2009 Anis Shivani
The Spectator . 11/2/2009 Craig Brown
Sueddeutsche Zeitung . 16/4/2008 Lothar Müller
Sunday Times F 8/2/2009 Adam Lively
The Times . 29/1/2009 Joan Smith
Die Welt . 15/2/2008 Rainer Moritz

  From the Reviews:
  • "Feuchtgebiete ist auch ein Crash-Kurs in Sachen Verführung, und das macht den Roman vielleicht am deutlichsten zum Hybrid des Feminismus. (...) Auch bei Charlotte Roches Interesse am grotesken Körper handelt es sich um keinen grünen Werbefeldzug zur sexuellen Artenerhaltung, sondern um ein Experiment. Indem Helen den Körper mit seinen polymorph-perversen Trieben fest ins Auge fasst, legt sie einen sprachlichen Boden, wo in der euphemistischen Gesellschaft der stumme Schrecken vor der je eigenen Monstrosität gelauert hat." - Ingeborg Harms, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "Sie zerschneidet gleichsam ihren Körper und sucht Pendants im Bildwörterbuch, in den Schaubildern der Zoologie und des Bäckerhandwerks. Die poetische Freiheit will die wissenschaftliche Bindung. Helen stellt nach eigener Aussage Forschungen an und führt Experimente durch. (...) In ihrem Kampf gegen den Hygieneterror hält sie in ihrem Klinikzimmer Ordnung wie in einer Klosterzelle. Ihre Forschungen sind Exerzitien asketischer Kontemplation. Nun scheinbar ist ihr Versuch vergeblich, durch Herumstochern in der Wunde die Versöhnung der Eltern am Krankenbett zu erzwingen. Die Wiedervereinigung von Vater- und Mutterwelt vollzieht sich in Helens Erzählung: Nach Auskunft dieses klugen Romans ist die sexuelle Aufklärung ein vernünftiger Glaube." - Patrick Bahners, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The hospital environment is a brilliant vehicle for debut novelist Charlotte Roche to show what it's like to be young and female and damaged, to be both pitiless and powerless and on display. (...) How could some of those who have commented on the book in other countries have called Wetlands porn ? Helen is a child, a wounded person in a hostile environment, creating her own pride and boundaries. Without self-pity, without therapy. Just creation of self by any means necessary, creation of memory where shock and fear made the outlines of the event waver like a mirage. Because there is little precedent in literature for a pure female hero, our bad, skinny, lonely, aggressive Helen is difficult to recognize as such." - Lisa Carver, Globe & Mail

  • "Given the outrageousness of her subject matter, though, it's a letdown that Roche's humour fails to build to a Rabelaisian pitch. This is not a beautiful or perfect book, but an enterprising one, and its cumulative effect is admirable: through Helen's all-out absorption in her physical self, her encyclopaedic demonstration of its properties, we glimpse how deeply attached we are to our bodies. We all have a relationship with zits, shits, nits and pregnancy kits: a private world of untold fun." - Lucy Ellmann, The Guardian

  • "Not funny, not moving, not provocative and certainly not titillating, Wetlands is just extraordinarily gross." - Nicola Barr, The Guardian

  • "If asked, should you nominate this as your next book-club choice ? The answer would be a cautious yes." - Emma Hagestadt, The Independent

  • "Wetlands is shocking. And it is disgusting. It plays on our every prurient tendency. But if you can get past the rushing torrent of vaginal secretions, pus, fecal matter and menstrual blood, there is an affecting story of a sad and incredibly lonely girl. If you can get past it." - Diana Wagman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(T)he focus on gender diverts attention from what Wetlands actually does well: it is a sharply written, taboo-busting black comedy, both gross and engrossing. If you are looking for a manifesto for 21st-century feminism, on the other hand, you will be disappointed. (...) I can't help but find it depressing that Helen has been understood as some kind of feminist icon. Far from being liberated, she is imprisoned by her preoccupations with sex, dirt, blood and hair. (...) Wetlands, in the tradition of Plath's The Bell Jar, is a remarkable novel about mental illness that has been mistaken for feminist literature." - Alice O'Keeffe, New Statesman

  • "Wetlands has all the nuance of Mad Magazine and less wit. Its descriptions are banal and repetitive, its vocabulary painfully limited. (...) I wondered at times if Roche was attempting a female version of American Psycho, substituting sex and fluid-play for the violence. Perhaps Wetlands is intended as a parody of narcissism and arrested development." - Sallie Tisdale, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(N)ot very much happens. Sometimes, Helen is in pain and sometimes she is hungry. But mostly, she thinks, in the great German tradition. Where Musil had a Man Without Qualities, Roche brings us a Woman without Pants." - Sophie Harrison, The Observer

  • "Roche reorients our senses to the kinds of stories we should be hearing, the very manner of their telling. We have been returned to the primitive base of fiction, and other modes seem somehow profoundly trivial. Novelists, germ-phobics all, sell us ethical narratives, as clean as hospital rooms. We need the Helen Memels to mess up the joint." - Anis Shivani, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Suffice it to say, most of Wetlands could have been written as a starter-manual for anyone toying with setting up a Pornography Aversion Clinic. Or is it a practical joke by anti-porn campaigners -- a book with a bright pink cover, marketed as lewd and sexy, but designed to put anyone who reads it off sex forever ? (...) I wouldn’t be all that surprised if, in a few months’ time, it turned out that it was written not by the fashionable German TV presenter Charlotte Roche but by two giggling ten-year-old schooboys, spurring eachother on to find out who could be the most disgusting. (...) The last sentence of the book is ‘I throw back my head and scream’. Oddly enough, this is exactly what I felt like doing too." - Craig Brown, The Spectator

  • "Charlotte Roche hat ihrem Anti-Parfüm-Roman, der den Eigengeruch des Körpers und die darin enthaltene sexuelle Attraktion als das beste Parfüm feiert, eine melodramatische Maske übergeworfen. (...) Wenn irgendwo das Erfolgsgeheimnis dieses anti-hygienischen Romans liegt, dann gewiss nicht in diesem Familienmelodram, an dessen Ende das Happy End der Tochter mit dem verständnisvollen Pfleger Robin steht. Denn man muss dem Plappermaul dieses Scheidungskindes nicht lange zuhören, um zu begreifen: Es leidet in Wahrheit nicht an seinen Eltern. Es leidet an Heidi Klum." - Lothar Müller, Sueddeutsche Zeitung

  • "In truth, the most obscene thing about Wetlands is its cynicism of conception and banality of execution. (...) None of this would matter, of course, if the writing were witty or entertaining. It is, however, humourless and flat, with the narrative frequently treading water while the author scrapes the barrel for the next oh-so-shocking piece of scatology (.....) For all its faux-outrageous coating, the weak and thinly imagined narrative of Wetlands is conventional and conservative. (...) Wetlands was written solely with an eye to creating a media tizzy." - Adam Lively, Sunday Times

  • "The novel's USP is a heroine who explores her own orifices with the fearlessness of a 15th-century adventurer; Helen's vagina, anus and bodily secretions fascinate her to a degree that will not necessarily be shared by every reader. (...) No wonder Roche has asked her parents not to read Wetlands. The latest erotic sensation reads a bit too much like a fictional version of Mommie Dearest for comfort." - Joan Smith, The Times

  • "Feuchtgebiete, das wird aus diesen wenigen Handlungssträngen deutlich, ist ein Roman, der bewusst provoziert. Sein reichhaltiges Sperma- und Eiterreservoir dient dazu, der überreinlichen, sakrotangetränkten westlichen Welt ein unzweideutiges Kontrastprogramm zu verpassen. Mit einem Etepetete-Girlie aus besseren Kreisen haben wir es hier nicht zu tun, eher mit einem sich betont rotzig gebenden Teenager, der die bürgerlichen Anstandsregeln mit großer Lust ad absurdum führt." - Rainer Moritz, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Wetlands, indeed.
       The story proper begins with the eighteen-year-old narrator, Helen Memel, noting that, for as long as she can remember, she has had hemorrhoids. Then she describes what that involves. And it's pretty much all downhill from there.
       Hygiene is not a top priority for Helen. She could be described as an anti-hygienist; more to the point, she likes to describe her anti-hygienic way of life. She positively wallows in the muck -- preferably her own muck, as she revels in her various bodily excretions: among other things, she describes herself as a Körperausscheidungsrecyclerin ('bodily-secretion-recycler'), happily gnawing on her scabs, consuming her pus and snot, and worse. Much worse. Much, much worse.
       A good deal of Wetlands is given over to Helen's descriptions of how she goes out of her way to avoid a hygienic lifestyle. It's related in a cheery, matter-of-fact way, like a toddler with mature language-skills might describe playing in her own fecal matter (though that's one thing Helen doesn't do -- at least not much). She doesn't sound like she means to shock, at least not on the surface, but there is a lot bubbling down below. (It's unfortunate that the English for the much-used word Muschi (approximate pronunciation: moo-shee) -- her pussy -- isn't quite as soft and sweet as in the German, since it conveys Helen's demeanour perfectly: it's hard to say 'Muschi' without a smile on one's face, while 'pussy' still has that hard, unpleasant edge to it.)
       Much has been made about how graphic the novel is, and there's no getting around that. For most of the novel, Roche is as in your face with bodily parts and functions (and filth) as one can get, describing these in magnified intimate detail. It can seem excessive right from the start, and she's constantly pushing even further. (Oh, the limits of good taste have long been left behind by the time you turn the first page .....) For example, some people clean the seat of a public toilet before they use it; Helen ... wipes the seat too, just not in the way one would expect anyone too. Or there's her money-saving habit of rolling her own tampons out of toilet paper, which sometimes get stuck in there and which she tries to fish out with daddy's fancy grilling-tongs, still with the burnt meat and fat drippings on them from the last barbecue (tongs she then replaces after use without cleaning them ...).
       The story in Wetlands revolves around Helen cutting herself while shaving her privates, leaving a nasty anal fissure that has to be operated on (with the bonus that they'll be able to remove her impressive hemorrhoids at the same time). The book describes her hospital stay, allowing readers to get more familiar with Helen's habits and predilections than anyone is likely to want to. (Remarkably, Helen's indulgences are so over the top that it is hard to imagine there are any fetishists out there who could appreciate all of what she's into and does.)
       Many of the descriptions are sexual in nature, as Helen's appreciation for everything natural extends to that. In every respect she's like a two-year-old going through an anal-oral-fixation phase, putting any piece of dirt into her mouth and indulging in all her physical whims. (It's somewhat hard to believe that at her age she could have already had so much and such varied sex, though her blasé attitude makes it seem like just more childish fun.) She's keen on experimentation, and since she turned eighteen has also become a regular customer at a local bordello (where, since she looks so young, she gets carded, though good girl that she is she waited until she was the legal age before coming), so she can have sex with women too; she does feel lust fairly often, but this, like many of her steps, also seems motivated more out of childish curiosity.
       What doesn't get lost in all this muck-raking is her deep-rooted pain, and the fact that there's more to all of this. Yes, Wetlands turns out to be a surprisingly tender and poignant tale, about a girl from a broken home who just wants to be part of one happy family. This goes a long way towards explaining why she likes to revel in filth so much. Mom explains even more, because mom is one of those insane hygiene-freaks who, for example, went so far as to tell her young daughter that it was unladylike to shit and that she never did something like that (i.e. mom is in a whole lot of denial).
       Before the story proper begins there's a short preamble in which Helen describes how much she's looking forward to taking care of her divorced parents when they're old and decrepit. She can't wait until they're dependent on her, when she can put them into a bed together and take care of them. The passage is easily forgotten, given what Helen unleashes next (about her anal injury and her unhygienic behaviour), and is perhaps first considered yet another manifestation of her aberrations, as she looks forward to new juices (emanating from her bedbound parents) to literally stew in, but it really gets to the heart of the matter. Her biggest desire at the hospital is to get her parents to visit her at the same time, which she tries repeatedly to bring about. She even tries to prolong her stay (with some unfortunate results) in the hopes that she can bring them together here (since she wouldn't be able to in the outside world).
       There's a lack of communication between Helen and her parents, too. She doesn't know what her father does, and they can never bring themselves to speak of anything significant. Worse is mom, who lives in a sort of dream-world. Numerous times, Helen is unable to reach either of them on the telephone, only leaving messages on their answering machines -- typical for communication between them -- and only once does Helen come close to confronting mom about the event that obviously had the greatest impact on her life, but all she does is pick up the receiver again after having left a message on her mother's answering machine and say what she has long wanted to ask to the dial-tone coming through the line.
       The childhood trauma that remains unaddressed is obviously deep-seated. Not only did Helen start going to a bordello once she came of age, but she also underwent a medical procedure, getting herself sterilized (without telling her parents). And now she seems to keep her maternal instincts occupied by raising avocados ......
       So, yes, there's more to Wetlands than the graphic, bodily-function-related descriptions. The dirt, the indulging in self and others -- not wanting to let go of a single bit of oneself, to the extent of trying to reinternalize any manifestation of injury or even just one's sweat and tears -- this whole back to basics (if not exactly nature) is very much just a shield for Helen, her attempt to protect herself from a world of hurt. Her ridiculously cheery tone gives the impression of a generally happy-in-her-own-filthy-skin girl, but it, too, is misleading. In fact, all she does is hurt (and yes, there's a lot of pain involved around and in recovering from the operations).
       Does all this work as a novel ? Sort of. It is a surprisingly insightful work, even as it (or at least her indulgences) seem so absurd.
       But it's not an easy read. It's about as uneasy a read as one can imagine.
       Helen is aroused by a lot of her ... habits, and she mentions a lot of sex, but this is not an erotic work. Yet it feels almost pornographic, because of the childish tone and the fact that Helen is a damaged child. The emphasis on her being of (legal) age is no coincidence: she is technically an adult, and has been for a short while now, but for the most part she is just a child.
       This isn't a book about the freedom of not shaving one's armpits (surprisingly, Helen shaves -- and is shaved -- a lot -- though, of course, that's also part of her problem, as it set everything in motion when she didn't do a good job of it) or a new, permissive feminism of getting down and dirty. It's simply a tender little story of a broken family and the toll it's taken on one member of it. But -- and this can't be emphasised enough -- it is very graphic, a book that's almost hard to hold, because you figure when you close it bodily fluids will start dripping out from between the pages. And it's definitely not appropriate for the kids -- not because of the sex, but because there's too much to digest here that they're not equipped to deal with.

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Wetlands: Reviews: Wetlands - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Charlotte Roche was born in England in 1978 and is a well-known TV personality in Germany.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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