Generally hailed as “not your mom’s erotica”, I would actually argue that The Siren is not erotica at all–at least, it’s not exclusively erotica. This is a romance, yes, but again, not your typical romance either. The heroine and the main male character are not meant to be with each other. They are meant to meet so that they can be with whom they love. Early in the book, Nora makes the point that some of what we consider “romance” may in fact be horror stories (such as The Gift of the Magi); this book is similarly difficult to settle into a neat category.
My case for a classification outside of “erotica” is based on a few elements. First, the strength of the story itself. This book, like the novel the main character is writing, could exist without the sex. Most erotic scenes in The Siren are understated (a good thing) and contain more hints than provocative descriptions. It’s really about a bunch of people, looking for love (aren’t we all?) the best way they can. Some have lost it, some have left it, some are feeling it for the first time. The sex doesn’t sustain the story–the story gives occasion to sex, rather than the sex artificially sustaining the plot. Basically, this is not porn: it’s literature with some sex in it. And don’t be fooled by the world in which Nora works; the BDSM underworld isn’t all about sex, either.
Second, this is an eminently literate book. It may seem naive from an ex-literary scholar, but I like when authors deliberately (and without too much veiling)use their literary predecessors. This book owes a lot of My Fair Lady (apparently; is it sacrilege I haven’t read it?) and, more suprisingly, The Odyssey (if the title didn’t give it away already). Zach is Odysseus, away from home and lost in a sea of guilt. He gets to hear the siren, without risk and without consequences to himself, except for a renewed desire to go home. But then, other people get thrown overboard for this momentary pleasure…
Third (because threes are awesome), I’ve read that some people found this book “shocking”. I may be too used to kind of stuff, because I didn’t find any of them particularly extreme. No slavery contracts, no selling people on an international sexual slave market (see Carrie’s Story: An Erotic S/M Novel for such “shocking” things) and no extreme behaviour. Just your usual, sane, safe and consensual BDSM activities, none of which not being already a part of pop culture’s idea of BDSM sex. Yes, vanilla is the new kinky, these days. Sex isn’t the exclusivity of erotica. 1Q84 famously has some disturbing sex scenes, yet we don’t say it’s erotica.
I believe that the universe of The Siren turns around words, not sex:
God created the world with words, Eleanor. Words are the thread in the fabric of the universe. You write because it brings you closer to God.
(The relationship of this book with religion is a whole other thing I won’t touch in this review, because, OH MY GOD, a lot of depth there.) Characters spend their time running away from words: Nora doesn’t reveal her real “name” to Zach and Zach doesn’t speak of his wife until the very end. Each character suffers because of his or her inability to find the right words, usually because of guilt, shame and/or regret.
Tiffany Reisz gives us a refreshing look at love that tries to be free of guilt, shame and regret–even if you need to be beaten to tears to feel it. If only everyone would love this way, the world would be a much better place.
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