Trigger warning: this piece contains repeated references to rape and sexual assault
Lurid, lyrical and at times disconcertingly joyous, Emma Glass’s gruesome rape revenge fable is a remarkable debut from the Swansea-based paediatric nurse. A slim volume, it can be read easily in one sitting. Yet, for all its perceptive insights into the traumatised subject, in some respects this novella dismays.
Our first encounter with the eponymous Peach is immediately after she has been raped. By page six, we are witness to her sewing up her torn vagina in the bathroom mirror. It is confronting to say the least. The monster responsible has a name—Lincoln—but not a human face or form. He is a sausage – the most grotesque incarnation Glass could imagine, being a vegetarian at the time of writing. At the 2018 Sydney Writers’ Festival, she described how she forced herself to cook a sausage for her research and the feelings of nausea, the sight of bubbling gristle, the charred oily flesh, inspired her descriptions of the character (Peach feels herself “smothered in grease from his slippery slimy sausage fingers”; she can “see smoke spilling from the slit in his skin”; she can't dislodge the image of his “greasy glistening skin in the orange light”).
Is sausage Lincoln real, or a ghastly figment of Peach’s traumatised, raw and hyper-sensitised imagination? It’s debatable. Hints that the latter may be true are later confounded. For instance, when Lincoln reappears to smear his huge body against the glass of a café where Peach is sitting, only she can see him in a room full of patrons. Yet when her boyfriend returns from ordering their breakfast, he remarks upon the oily stain left behind.
Here, Glass may be giving vivid literary figuration to the nature of traumatic memory – which, as the horrific event can never be articulated, can only be reimagined by the sufferer in substitutions, often monstrous in shape. The ineffability around trauma also means that, as with Peach, the individual is trapped in a wordless stasis. Unable to convey what happened to her, failed by the wretched, divesting, flimsy scaffolding for experience that is language, she is silent.
The deliberately unresolved ambiguities in Peach prompt ontological questions. If, for instance, an imagined world is so potent it registers as more ‘real’ than the material one, does it make sense to make such a strict delineation between the two? Certainly in Peach’s mind, and possibly in actuality (and truly, it doesn’t help to worry too much about which), Lincoln stalks Peach: a foul menace skirting the edges of her strange, sinister, wonderland world. He swings outside her house on a lamppost; leaves oily love notes in her locker; murders her cat. Peach continues to tell no one what happened to her.
Ironically, her associative run-on thoughts—which swell and morph and extrapolate the particular into the grotesque—become a means for her to dissociate from the real; a protective mechanism that proves corrosive to her psychic stability. In shock, unwilling to self-identify as a victim (someone who culture has turned into a cliché), she often transposes the high-pitch tension of horror into the high-pitch tension of hysteria, as with this scene when she removes the stitches to her wound with kitchen scissors:
Snip. Don’t slip. Snip. Don’t slip. Snip Snip. Snip. Slip and I will shear and that’s the fear the fear the fear… My skin blisters immediately with goose bumps and every tiny hair pricks up and I look in the mirror and laugh because I look like a cactus. A cactus with legs. A cactus that planted itself on top of something with legs.
The repetition of words in close proximity has a compulsive quality, but a numbing effect. Say a word often enough, after all, and it drains of meaning – and its power to hurt and possess. For the traumatised subject, repetition of language is a kind of cathartic expulsion, an overwhelming anxiety-driven effort to make the world in words impotent of all (threatening) force. Only when the signifier breaks from the signified can the person be safe.
Meanwhile, Peach’s parents—perpetually engorged bum-pinchers, slobbering sweetly at each other and distracted by their newborn ‘jellybean’ baby—are oblivious. They view sex as a kind of universal rapture everyone should enjoy. And they are unconcerned when Peach starts swelling.
Like the rest of the characters in the book (save, significantly, Lincoln), Peach’s name imbues her with the referent’s non-human qualities, which—through Glass’ evocative, sense-steeped language—disturbs and melts the separation between the metaphoric and the literal. Peach is therefore soft and “loose and juicy” when she is happy. Her boyfriend, Green, is arboreal; when she kisses him “she tastes twigs” and when he looks at her, “his brown eyes take root”. There are characters you can’t help but get a wonderful kick out of, like Hair Netty, a kitchenhand so hirsute she is made invisible by her tresses, and the teacher Mr Custard, a rolling yellow blob of a man who needs to be scooped up from the floor by his students if his constitution hasn’t yet set.
How easy it would to adore these synecdochal characters in another context.
But the traumatic event insists itself on this fantasy world, and Peach, doomed by her name, keeps swelling. She alternately accepts, abhors and vindictively celebrates the hard lump tumescing inside of her – even when it’s established this isn’t a pregnancy. Glass’ language around Peach’s rapid body transformation and the character’s relation to it is at its most visceral. Take the following passage:
The bricks push me, put pressure on each side of my stomach. If I squeeze in any more I might burst, pop, split and squirt my building boiling venom all over the rain-slicked street. I could burst with hurt. With hate. And show my core. I wait.
At the end of this wait, Lincoln is dead. Peach is consumed by (and in a grotesque scene, consumes) the incident. Yet the hard hate doesn’t dissolve – instead, ultimately, Peach does. All her softness melts away until she is nothing but a stone that “won’t hold…can’t grow…can’t hold any soul”: a peach pit.
As did the Guardian’s Sarah Ditum, I resisted this end to the book and of Peach. It denies the character the chance at survivorhood, and instead—with fatal inevitability—punishes her revenge fantasy enactment with the annihilation of self. Indeed, it is the unravelling of the thread that she tried to heal her ripped self with that brings about her death. Writes Ditum, potently:
The climax is a generic formality, and it feels as unearned as it is preordained… Female obliteration follows female suffering, for the same reason that sibilance piles up on sibilance in the needle-and-thread scene: because it sounds right.
Arguably, perhaps, the book also seems to contain far too many disgust-laden references to fat and fatness to escape entirely the possibility of it being fatphobic. Peach’s loathing for her abuser is located in Glass’ descriptions of his “fat sadistic sausage fingers”; his monstrous mass barely contained within his transparent sheath. Her own fast-swelling stomach is a result of the rape. “DON’T TRY TO SWIM UNTIL YOU ARE THIN AGAIN” the lifeguard Trunk yells at her (an ominous warning, as the denouement reveals). While Glass may be merely performing a literalisation of the ‘heaviness’ of trauma with clever imaginative constructions around Peach’s 'pit', I found the relentlessness of these paired associations dismaying.
Peach has attracted praise from distinguished literary figures. George Saunders, who won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, said that Peach “renews one’s faith in literature”. Beyond any consideration of literary merit, the attention is notable given the book is not only Glass’ debut work, but just over one hundred pages long.
There is no denying Peach is unputdownable. It is so easy to slip through the lilting prosody – to fall headlong past the rhyme, bouncing along its buttery tumblings of assonance and alliteration. And it is apt, too, that Peach’s universe is just as slippery as the language that endlessly composes and decomposes it – tilting wildly between a violent waking nightmare and a comic/lyrical idyll of silly teachers and tender boyfriends. Forms are malleable and with uncertain boundaries – the baby melts when it gets too hot; Mr Custard runs to goo; brushing against Green’s chin gives Peach splinters; Spud shaves himself to cater free chips for his friends.
All of which coalesces to reproduce the most central tenet of horror, reanimated uniquely in Peach: that environments can’t be controlled; that our bodies are forever vulnerable and in flux; and that we are utterly, utterly defenceless against violences we could never have anticipated. With Glass perhaps cleaving too much to the diktats of genre—privileging literary affect over a more empathic sensitivity—the reader inhabits with Peach an ineluctably untrustworthy world; unpredictable in all elements; yet fatally predictable in the certainty of some kind of death.
Kate Prendergast is a writer based in Sydney. Her work has been published in The Lifted Brow, Overland, Neighbourhood Paper and The Walkley Magazine Online. She does fukt up art @_tenderhooks.