Permafrost by Eva Baltasar review – a wolf howl against drudgery and bad sex

This short novel, which was a Catalan bestseller, is poet Eva Baltasar’s fiction debut; she has published 10 volumes of poetry. Permafrost’s chapters take us from an unnamed narrator’s adolescence to her 40s; throughout it all her desire for women is a constant. It piques the curiosity of other women in her family. “What is it like to fuck a woman?” her aunt and later her sister ask.

To the narrator, these straight, or straight-seeming, women are weird: bizarrely intent on denying themselves. She professes scorn for them – “[b]eing the bearer of important news: the only climax Mom has ever known” – and struggles to perform the sentimentality they demand of her. When her sister, pregnant with her second child, asks whether she is “excited”, the narrator responds with: “It’s so amazing to be an aunt twice over it’s like being a full-fledged aunt like going from wearing a monocle to wearing a pair of glasses or from riding a tricycle to riding a bicycle.”

The narrator is interested in reading as well as sex. She moves from rural Scotland to Belgium, and back to Barcelona, enjoying both activities in luxurious, image-laden prose. Lovers have hair like “bundles of fiber optics” and calves that are “compact like thinking skulls”. We’re served decadent and gloopy half-metaphors, such as, “pleasure … whose epicentre was the word ‘Camembert’”. In one sentence, Baltasar and translator Julia Sanches summon not only a literal instance of sex involving food play, not only sex between women in the abstract, but the joyful eroticism of words and reading.

The narrator of Permafrost is also suicidal. Her desire to die runs parallel to her desire for women. And as the novel progresses, her apparent disdain for her mother, her sister and nieces – for whom she is caring and present in times of need – emerges as what it is: a wolf howl against their heteronormative lives of drudgery, bad sex and childbearing.

Risk of suicide is elevated among queer people; according to a Stonewall survey of LGBT people in the UK, 42% felt life was not worth living at some point in the last year. But queerness can be a salvation. Permafrost shows this beautifully. We feel both the unbearableness of life and how, in the midst of that, words and sex – and specifically sex between women – make the narrator feel the embodied joy of being alive.

When the narrator finally answers her sister’s question – “What is it like to fuck a woman?” – she recalls The Great Escape, a film where soldiers dig a tunnel to escape a German prisoner of war camp, only to discover it’s six metres short. The narrator explains, euphorically: “Being with a woman is like sticking your head out of the tunnel and discovering that you’ve actually dug through those last few metres.”

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