The Siren is a contemporary work, and the author writes vivid, raw descriptive prose making the realism very potent. I have to be honest and say I found this book to be like a psychological minefield and just when I thought I’d safely stepped out of it I’d turn the page and another bomb would detonate. The thing is I did read the book over the course of one day and couldn’t not finish even though its content provoked a myriad of emotions including heartache, disgust and anger. In my view, that is the sign of a gifted and intelligent writer, one who can evoke significant emotion by embedding her well-drawn characters into a plot that keeps a reader engaged. It helped to read Tiffany Reisz’ responses in her interview posted at Book Lovers Inc. blog regarding her work. Her characters, for the most part, are certainly complex and damaged.
The story has a number of narrative threads involving Nora Sutherland and the men in her life. As the synopsis describes she lives a covert existence as an in demand and very well compensated Dominatrix who also writes erotica. Nora is not taken seriously by the literary community as her work is considered trash. Enter Zachary Easton, a British editor who is considered one of the top talents in the business. Zach was enticed to come and work for a New York publishing house when his marriage disintegrated but the couple haven’t divorced. It’s evident from the beginning that Zach still loves his wife and is grieving, missing her terribly. He has accepted a promotion and in six weeks will leave for Los Angeles, he gets bulldozed into working with Nora, a writer whom he initially holds in contempt–but there is a proviso: the book doesn’t go to press until he signs off on it. Ergo, Zach heads to Connecticut “to meet some loony smut writer who somehow convinced one of the most respected lions in publishing that she deserved one of the best editors in literary fiction.”
Nora isn’t at all what Zach expected, the petite beauty lives in a Tudor cottage situated in a quiet suburb with her 19 year old ‘intern’ Wesley. I quite enjoyed the parts of the story that revolve around Zach and Nora’s relationship, their banter and how her writing progresses under his tutleage. As the realization dawns that she is talented writer, capable of producing a stellar piece of work Zach begins to respect her and from the beginning he is attracted to her sexually. I also really liked Wesley, who I saw as mature beyond his years and the one person in Nora’s bizarre life who provides common sense and stability. Their relationship is platonic, he is infatuated with her and Nora loves him but she doesn’t want to disrupt their friendship. Wes hates her ‘other life’ and Søren, her ex.
Throughout the novel Nora shares her memories that manifest through her writing which she deletes when her musings involve her past relationship with Søren. She cannot disclose their history because exposure would lead to a myriad of problems for him. One could argue, that exposure is the best thing that could happen for the world given this guy’s violent predilections. Anyway, Søren is a sexual sadist who trained Nora from the age of 18 to be his submissive slave. Her recollections reveal startling cruelty and are not for the faint of heart. Nora endured merciless whippings, canings and other torture, and she was made to crawl around on the floor at Søren’s feet while collared and leashed like a dog. As well, he forced her to perform sexual favors in front of an audience and shared her with another dominant in an underground BDSM club called Circle 8 where Søren is considered the Master. The scenes are violent and realistic. Nora reflects on the pain, the degradation, how she could hear the lash or cane whipping through the air before it bit into her flesh. She laments that all of this was okay because after all, she had a safe-word and Søren, being the wonderful man that he is, would stop the torment immediately if she used it. Theirs was a bond of love and trust. Hmmmm…..
Even before Søren is actually introduced in the story I felt loathing and contempt for him. This is a respected authority figure that met an impressionable 16-year-old Nora who immediately became infatuated with the handsome, charismatic 30-year-old Søren. Instead of behaving like a responsible adult and allowing her infatuation to wane, 2 years later he indoctrinated her into his underground world of depravity. I felt Søren abused and corrupted her. Nora left Søren 5 years prior to the opening of the story but struggles to cope or function with any sort of normalcy in her life. It’s no wonder, she was enslaved to her Master for at least a decade prior walking out or crawling as she puts it.
The thing is, in Søren, Reisz crafts a magnetic and brilliant orator, a master of debate who presents convincing pseudo-philosophical arguments to justify his perversions and violent sadistic traits. His oratory skills are in evidence when we first meet him at Circle 8. Søren makes his entrance with his sycophants groveling on the floor around him kissing his feet. He instills fear in those who frequent the club which has a hierarchy that I found similar to the Catholic church. At Circle 8 Søren is the Pope, and a dangerous one. Nora brings Zach to the club, or ‘hell’ as she refers to it, not expecting her ex to make an appearance. Zach soon learns he is not going win an argument with Søren. Their exchange is interesting, the debauchery in evidence at the club is an eye opener for an appalled Zach as he is escorted around for a ‘tour’.
There are numerous themes explored in this book including religion, particularly Catholicism. Nora was raised a Catholic and therefore the church’s teachings are deeply rooted in her psyche. I thought that maybe, even though she no longer attends church, her acceptance of Søren’s brutality could perhaps have been about penance and seeking absolution for her perceived sins? However, given her enslavement to a sadist it would seem that absolution will never be forthcoming as her slavemaster would never give it. As I read on I realized that Zach’s observation that Nora is mad was likely accurate. But if she is mad it is due to Søren’s impact and control of her life.
The author spares readers many of the gritty details showing Nora in her Dominatrix role excluding one f/f scene, but that is handled well. As you can tell I was deeply disturbed by this story for a number of reasons. I felt it was a sad tale about violent abuse and codependency. Nora constantly makes excuses for Søren’s predilections and brutality, claiming he is good, decent and trustworthy even though he refers to a human being as “a pet” or gives a suicidal minor to Nora as a “gift” to be sexually initiated because Søren identifies this kid with father issues as a submissive. She laments that his treatment of her and the life style is okay because some loves only come out after dark. If the dark involves beating your partner to the point of requiring Emergency medical assessment and treatment then, I’m sorry, it’s not okay, its inexcusable brutal physical abuse, it is harmful. I’m not going to even attempt to address the psychological issues raised in this story.
The Siren is provocative and frightening. Recognizing it is a work of fiction, one does have to keep the philosophical arguments regarding sadomasochism espoused in the book in context. However I don’t have to agree that brutality and degradation is okay as long as it’s consensual. IMO it’s not acceptable. I don’t feel this book is for everyone, you have to be willing to step way outside the box to take Nora’s journey with her. I will say the conclusion of The Siren broke my heart. Will I read The Angel, the next novel in Reisz’s The Original Sinners series? …No.
Review originally posted at Book Lovers Inc.
Rating: 2.5 to 3