Whether you love or hate her work, the high-achiever (a musician-turned-television-presenter-turned-actor-turned-novelist) has proven herself to be one of the most important writers of deliberately feminist fiction to have emerged in the last few years.
Born in High Wycombe, Roche’s politically liberal family emigrated to Germany, settling in the Lower Rhine region when their daughter was a year old. Perhaps influenced by her “politically and artistically active” mother, Roche left home at fifteen – two years before she left school – to found an all-girl garage rock band, The Dubinskis.
After a period of experimenting with shock tactics, including drug use, self-mutilating in order to paint using her own blood, and shaving her head, Roche successfully auditioned to become video jockey on the German music channel Viva, a decision that launched her career as an Arts and Culture broadcaster and occasional film actor.
Not yet ready to give up on shocking people, in 2008 Roche began her writing career when her debut novel Wetlands, or Feuchtgebiete in German, was published in her adopted homeland (a more direct, and some would argue appropriate, translation of its title would be “Moist Patches”).
Meant an act of dissent against the “tyranny of female sexual hygiene” Wetlands soon became a worldwide hit.Meant an act of dissent against the “tyranny of female sexual hygiene” Wetlands soon became a worldwide hit, and remains the biggest selling title on Amazon anywhere in the world.
An impressive feat, given that the book opens with Helen, its protagonist, hospitalised after she injures her labia majora while shaving and plays out entirely in a proctology ward.
Inarguably not the type of girl you’d take home, Helen’s voice is one that argues against the idea that female sexuality is something that needs to be “cleansed” by society.
To that end, she’s disinterested in personal hygiene, preferring to experiment with the effectiveness of her own pheromones by dabbing her vaginal secretions behind her ears. Spoiler: It works for her. It works very well.
She’s also exuberantly promiscuous, revelling in her sexual and sensual experiences and fantasies the way Nigella Lawson revels in making Key Lime Pie. Roche’s clear, often pornographically rendered message is that when it comes to sexuality there is nothing to be ashamed of, except perhaps shame itself.
Published in April this year, Roche’s follow-up Wrecked explores similar themes but from the perspective of a more mature woman. In Wetlands Helen was an eighteen-year-old girl whose sexuality propelled her story at warp speed; In Wrecked, the protagonist Elizabeth is a wife and mother in her thirties.
Her sexuality, though still a fundamental force in the book, has been affected by a terrible event in her past, an impact that Roche – a mother, who is now married for the second time and has stated that the novel is semi-autobiographical – takes great care to explore. Again this sometimes happens pornographically, a fact some readers have found hugely distasteful.
Reading honest, and especially brazen accounts of sexuality is often a more unsettling experience than an arousing one. Roche’s work, which has been disparagingly described as a handbook “for masturbation” has never shied away from content that could cause upset, and in doing so provides female readers with one of the more honest voices in literature today.
So, even if we don’t always enjoy the work of Charlotte Roche, we do truly appreciate it.