REVIEW: Remastering Jerna by Ann Somerville
Dear Ms. Somerville:
Remastering Jerna is a remarkable book that harkens back to the beginnings of the novel in the eighteenth century. It is a spiritual autobiography, a travel narrative, a psychological exploration of extreme stress, a prison story, the memoirs of a whore — all the stuff of the novel’s infancy and growth. Although Remastering Jerna is brilliantly constructed and a stunning tour de force, it is only a romance in its last third, perhaps its last half, which is going to make my review slightly schizophrenic.
Set in…an alternate world (?) that is very much like our own but with a different political system, different money, and a matriarchal religion, Remastering Jerna is the first-person narrative of Jerna Setiq, teacher, husband, father…and repressed masochist. He agrees to tutor Davim Korei, the apprentice of his former master, Kimis, the master he broke with when he fell in love with and married his beloved wife Tyrme, mother of his two young children. Davim is almost 17, underage in this society where the age of consent is 18 for everything, and when Jerna finds out that Davim is Kimis’s current sexual submissive, he forces Kimis to stop the relationship until Davim reaches his eighteenth birthday. Davim is furious and as punishment, comes on to Jerna then lies when they are discovered in a compromising embrace. Jerna is arrested for, charged with, and in very short order convicted of the very “child perversion” he is trying to prevent.
This set-up all happens within 28 pages. Another 40 pages follows Jerna as he narrates us through the awful abuse, dehumanization, and hopelessness of the penal system. He is then “hired” in his capacity as a prisoner at a brothel, where we follow him for another 80 pages as he describes his life and duties at the brothel. As first-person narratives sometimes do, the story feels strangely conflictless. This is a direct effect of the book not truly being a romance until more than halfway through. Because the story as a whole follows the ancient conflicts of Man Against Society and Man Against Himself, rather than a romance trajectory, there is no progress in a relationship to track to provide the story with the form we’re familiar with. Jerna doesn’t even meet his future love interest until after he’s well-established at the brothel and it says something about the narrative that I can’t reveal who Jerna’s love interest IS without huge spoilers. The result of this format is that the reader is left following Jerna’s own blind endurance of his extreme suffering without much surcease or hope. Which is kinda depressing, most of the time.
Which is not to say that this book isn’t a brilliant psychological portrait of the effects of the extreme stress of torture and imprisonment and a devoted, almost loving exploration of the unbelievable limits of the human mind and body to endure without hope:
Lady, what do you want from me now?
I sank to my knees, ignoring the freezing wind against my bare arms. I wanted to be cold, to suffer. Maybe, when I’d suffered enough for the Goddess, she’d end this. Or maybe that was what she was waiting for me to do — not to force other people to do my dirty work for me.
I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know what anyone wanted any more. I’d tried so hard to do the right thing, and all that had happened was that I’d make them angry, been punished, imprisoned, shouted at.
“What do you all want?” I whispered, bending low over my knees, crouching around the pain inside me. “Please, tell me what you want and I’ll do it, whatever it takes.”
It is indeed brilliantly done and completely compelling. I read until 4:30am the day I received the book, completely unable to put it down or even to read ahead as I usually do because the picture of Jerna was so perfectly constructed. But it’s not the happiest of books, let’s say.
As for the BDSM—it’s as brilliantly, beautifully done as the psychological portrait. Jerna is a sexual submissive and a masochist. He has been suppressing this side of himself for seven years, all through his very happy marriage to Tyrme, because he does not believe she will understand or approve of his sexual predilections. The brothel’s female owner, however, recognizes the masochist in him and uses him in her BDSM show, re-awakening his need for masochism. The scenes of BDSM done right and BDSM done very wrong are both perfectly enacted, showing the “synergy” (your word) between the emotion and the acts that is so necessary to — the point, in fact, of — BDSM.
When the romantic interest finally shows up, it’s the last person in the world I would have guessed would or could be a successful partner for Jerna. I have never been surprised like that before in a romance. The plot twist — more a wide turn, really, than a sharp twist — to reveal Jerna’s partner is perfectly executed. Although I could never have imagined Jerna’s partner to be who it was, you make me fully believe that he is the perfect person for Jerna by the end of the book. The only niggle I have here is that there doesn’t seem to be quite enough interaction for the depth of Jerna’s emotions at the dark moment when the two men are parted. Jerna’s emotions are so exquisitely laid out and dissected throughout the novel, that to have the depth of Jerna’s romantic attachment be slightly underdeveloped only makes it that much more glaring a concern.
However, that aside, the writing and emotions expressed were strong enough that I was crying at the end of the book, both for the lovers’ parting and for their reunion. Whatever the rest of the book, the ending is pure, exquisite romance, beautifully portrayed. My grade is slightly lower than it would be if this weren’t a romance review site, because most of the book is NOT actually a romance. If this were a general lit review site, I’d give it an A- (notice, for example, how many times I use “brilliantly” in this review). As a romance review site, though:
This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook version.
EDITED TO ADD: I do have to add, for the record, and because it needs to be said even though I keep forgetting to say it, that Jerna is a sanctimonious prig. In the nicest possible way, of course, and I was rooting for him the whole way through. But if he’d been able to bend some of his morals just a leetle now and then….well, there wouldn’t have been a book, but it does make me want to slap him around a little and, like Cher in Moonstruck, yell “Snap out of it!” But that in no way detracts from the novel — in fact, it adds to the reader’s involvement with the book. But still. It had to be said. :)