O by Steven Carroll
Almost 70 years ago, a slim little book was published by a small French publishing house, sans publicity or fanfare, its author a previously unheard-of woman by the name of Pauline Réage. The Story of O would go on to become one of the most divisive (and bestselling) works of literature ever published, celebrated by some, reviled by others. For decades, Réage’s identity remained a mystery, many believing The Story of O could never have been written by a woman. Then, in 2004, it was revealed that the true author was Dominique Aury, a refined, intellectually passionate French woman, respected for her translations and her years of excellent work as an editor at leading French publisher Gallimard. Many have since speculated how such a woman could have written this novel. Moreover, why would she have written it?
Enter Steven Carroll and his new novel O. Some might say that a book that seeks to reimagine Aury’s motivations for writing The Story of O could never be written by a man, but I would argue Carroll has done a spectacular job. O is beautifully written, at once a heartbreaking love story and a deft exploration of just why The Story of O so offends those who despise it. The multifaceted conversations between Carroll’s Dominique and her married lover Jean (also her publisher) enthral the reader, conveying the progression of this unique relationship, and provoking deeper thought as to why the world finds the baring of female desire so appalling, even frightening.
Carroll is known and celebrated for his talent in writing all-encompassing historical novels, often focusing on other writers, their skill with words and their imagined motivations for writing. Were Aury alive to read O, I have no doubt she would be well pleased with his portrayal of her: a woman brave even when afraid, thrilled by secrecy and danger, most free when defeated and occupied.