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‘Unassailable in their womanhood’ [book review]

A review of No Touching by Ketty Rouf, translated from the French by Tina Kover

‘Challenging’ is the word that first springs to mind when I think of how to describe No Touching, the award-winning debut novel by Italian-French author Ketty Rouf, which has just been translated into English by Tina Kover. It is a term that applies on many levels: not only is the book at times challenging for the reader, but its entire premise presents a challenge to social norms and preconceptions surrounding women’s bodies, sexual desire and, more specifically, the profession of lap dancer. Operating in the shadows between day and night, where it happily pushes the boundaries of convention, Rouf’s novel is an unsettling read that left me not quite knowing where I stand on it.

Cover image No Touching

‘The body is our strongest reason for existing,’ says Joséphine, the first-person narrator of the novel, a thirty-five-year-old philosophy teacher working at a large school in one of the banlieues of Paris. Exhausted by the daily grind – a two-hour commute, colleagues she dislikes, unruly students and a raft of measures designed to make the curriculum (and therefore the pupils) as simple and uniform as possible – the only bright spot in her life is Martin, a literature teacher with whom she regularly exchanges books. An unexpected stint of sick leave gives Joséphine the opportunity to dip a toe into the waters of pole-dancing and strip clubs, and after a series of slightly implausible events (which are nevertheless suited to the ever-so-slightly-surreal world of the novel), she takes up a second, night-time job as a dancer at a club called Dreams.

Although Rouf has clearly done her best to emphasize the real-life aspects of strip clubs – she never flinches when it comes to the detail, going straight for what many of us might refer to as the seedier, grittier aspects of this setting – she plays strongly with dreams and fantasy, making Joséphine’s nocturnal world seem heightened, in stark contrast with the flat, grey world of school. There is something of the Baz Luhrmann film Moulin Rouge about the strip-club scenes, which are saturated with red lips, sequinned dresses, magnums of champagne, and wads of bank notes tucked into lace garters. Though the contrast is effective and plays an essential role in conveying the central idea of the book, the repeated excess is at times a little wearing – after the second or third such scene, I felt I had the idea. A slight tendency towards relentlessness, however, appears to be part of Rouf’s style: as Joséphine describes the men for whom she dances, whose lives and romantic messes are largely (and possibly unfairly) made out to be pathetic, she doesn’t just portray a couple, but instead offers us an entire A–Z.

Building on Descartes’ philosophy, particularly the mind–body problem, No Touching is a narrative about a woman gaining control of her life and strengthening her mind by coming to an intimate understanding of her own body. When she becomes Rose Lee, her stage name as a dancer, Joséphine launches herself into a life she could never have imagined, throwing wide open the doors of her mind and growing to love her physical form in a way she never did before – she used, she tells us, to look in the mirror and see ‘the ugliest girl in the world’, a state with which many woman will be sadly familiar. While the message of female empowerment here is strong, underscored by the solid friendships and even romantic relationships Joséphine develops with her fellow dancers, all of whom she views as ‘unassailable in their womanhood’, there remains still a rather troubling undercurrent of how the female body is objectified by men. Despite the fact that Joséphine feels herself to have total power over her customers (the club’s private rooms are monitored from all angles, and the strict rule of ‘no touching’ applies to both dancer and client), she still uses all the means at her disposal to make herself into a male fantasy, presenting herself in the way she knows they wish to see her.

As philosophical a writer as Rouf may be, there is a gulf here that is impossible to bridge, and I found myself turning away from Joséphine’s suggestion that all women should do her job, if only for a while. Empowerment comes in many forms – just as people do – and while this is certainly a brave novel that forces the reader to rethink our stereotypes and consider the human body in a different light, it leaves unanswered many disquieting questions around control, consent and the circumstances in which we feel able to love ourselves. (It has to be said that I came to this novel shortly after reading Shiori Ito’s Black Box, a harrowing examination of what can happen when men think they can take exactly what they want from women.)

Outside the world of Dreams and the edgier, often overwrought scenes, Rouf adopts a more sober tone for detailing Joséphine’s work and her relationship with her students. A clandestine correspondence with one teenager, Hadrien, is a neat if slightly fanciful narrative device for exploring philosophical concepts, particularly the ideas of the Stoics, but her fragile relationship with seventeen-year-old Wallen is altogether more interesting, though sadly too briefly explored. Only rarely allowing her mask to slip, Wallen is in many ways a younger copy of Joséphine, whose narrative voice is often cold and aloof, preventing the reader too from getting close enough to touch her. Besides considerable criticism of the national education system, Rouf also builds in a marked anger at societies that have come to rely on a soulless nine-to-five – while the strip-club scenes may be explicit, the real vulgarity lies in scenes like lunchtime in a bland school cafeteria, ‘women and men brought together in an obscene display of our lack of drive and passion’. Perhaps even more than a cry for female empowerment, No Touching is a call for rebellion against the system.

In the end, as much as I could hear her voice and appreciated the vibrant nature of Tina Kover’s translation, which maintains the French flavour of the novel while making cultural references work in an English-language context, I couldn’t quite get on with Joséphine. Not bonding fully with the narrator isn’t necessarily a problem, and her reserve is more than likely a deliberate choice on the part of the author – another layer of the ‘no touching’ message, a subtle comment about how a naked body isn’t a revealed mind – but I did feel I needed a bit more emotional investment, particularly when Joséphine faces dilemmas or, later on, grief.

In this and many other aspects, readers of Rouf’s novel will doubtless be polarised – and so, I suspect, the author has achieved her aim. Unusual in tone and subject, courageous and (that word again) challenging, No Touching is not for the faint-hearted, but doubtless one of the more memorable novels of the year.

No Touching by Ketty Rouf, translated from the French by Tina Kover, is published in paperback and digital by Europa Editions. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a review copy.


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