Unmastered by Katherine Angel

9th Oct 2012


Unmastered (or, to give it its full title, Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell) is an experimental work written by writer and academic Katherine Angel, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for History of Medicine at the University of Warwick.

The book combines reflections from the author’s life with feminist reading, splicing experiences with theory and half-thoughts, all relating in various and differing ways to the concept of desire.

With short bursts of prose teeming with dynamic imagery and language, Angel swirls together a number of themes around sex and desire in a way that is simultaneously haphazard, intimate and questioning. I found the work to be staunchly open – the writer poses questions to her audience, but without aggression or judgement.

Drawing on Susan Sontag, Angel looks at her own sexual relationships to explore what she calls the “porousness of desire”, “deference to the other, to the point of not knowing that you have incorporated the other”.

Angel also wades unselfconsciously into other concerns that nip at the heels of women with feminist considerations. The guilty but automatic, physical reactions elicited by a misogynistic and plastic pornography, or, her enjoyment of physical constraint by her sexual partner. This leads her to frame and illustrate some of the problems that have long crippled and fragmented feminist movements: Angel describes occasions when, according to the view of many feminists, her pleasure and her desire have let down the cause, have colluded with the oppressor.

The writer is fearlessly personal when discussing her sexual experiences and even relaying her experience of abortion. She lives her feminism: for Angel, the personal is political and she is unafraid to delve deep into her own life to prove it.

The framing of the issue of desire with the inclusion of abortion was, for me, especially profound. Contraception and pregnancy are such huge considerations in women’s desire and yet abortion is usually far removed from any discussion of the subject.

I read this book twice. The first time I was sat on a train and I sprinted through its short phrases. Finishing it quickly, I closed it unaffected and unruffled. The format, though, continued to intrigue me, with plenty of white space surrounding just a few sharp words on each page. A couple of weeks later, I read it again. This time I was at home, lounging on the sofa, tea in hand. The second time, it sparked a myriad connections in my mind, and the synthesis of form and content became masterful.

Published by Penguin, Unmastered is now available as a hardback from Foyles, Amazon or your local bookshop, priced at £15.99.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for… Those willing to spend time over a book: this is best as a slow read, with time to mull it over. In my experience it takes a little while for the ideas to settle in, so expect to look over it a few times as you get used to Angel’s format and style.

Other recommended reading: Angel makes the pathology of her thought explicit for the reader, revealing other writers that have inspired the various sections of the book. Of these, the two strongest influences throughout are Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag and both, as heavyweights in feminist reading would make a welcome progression if you enjoy Unmastered.

Henna Butt