All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Taming The Beast – Emily Maguire

on September 15, 2012

Taming The Beast
Emily Maguire
2009 (originally 2004), 374p
Bought at the Melbourne Writers Festival

Sarah Clark is 14 when her English teacher Mr Clark seduces her. From that moment on her life is changed and her days and thoughts revolve around him and their meetings. She is head over heels in love and lust for the first time in her life, utterly bewitched by not only the things he can make her feel but the things they talk about too. Sarah is passionate about literature and Mr Clark can stimulate her intellect as well as her body.

But then his wife discovers the affair and Mr Clark is forced to make a choice: choose Sarah and shaming or to leave and take his family far away, somewhere safe. He chooses his wife and leaves Sarah utterly bereft and behind. From that time on her life revolves around a never-ending line of sexual experiences as she seeks desperately to find the same thing that she had with Mr Clark – the ‘making of the beast with two backs’. She puts herself in dangerous situations, seeks out all types of men, all in order to try and recreate those feelings. She is shunned by her family and she has few friends. All she has is her job, her university studies and her books….and a man who loves her but who she cannot be with.

Then Mr Clark walks back into her life, seven years after he left it. Once again the destructive relationship they enjoyed all that time ago resurfaces, this time even more frightening in its intensity as they are no longer bound by their relationships to others. Mr Clark is no longer married and Sarah is no longer a schoolgirl that needs to be home to her family on time. The all-encompassing danger of their relationship threatens to consume them both.

I’m not going to lie. This is one of, if not the most fucked up book I have ever read. When I went to the Sex & Sensibility panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival and Emily Maguire mentioned this book, I knew I had to read it. I am drawn to books that tackle controversial topics and unashamedly. And this one might be messed up – but it’s also brilliant.

The thing that first struck me about this book were the characters. Sarah is 14, very intelligent with a family that seem to gloss over here. Her mother seems interested in her only in that Sarah is obtaining good grades so that she can go to university and further her good education. Then she may think about boys and having a boyfriend. Sarah is an avid reader, she enjoys literature and literary references and it seems that her reaction to things is what first catches Mr Clark’s eye. Mr Clark himself seems an average, mild mannered English teacher. Even hesitant in his initial seduction of Sarah, gently, cautiously touching her and awaiting her reaction before proceeding on. It isn’t until a bit later that both of their obsessive sides are revealed.

When Mr Clark leaves, Sarah’s reaction was not one I expected. She seeks out others, boys at her school at first, moving on to boys at parties and then men in bars, giving in to sexual encounters searching for those feelings that Mr Clark was able to invoke within her. Her quest is fruitless, it doesn’t matter how many people she sleeps with, what sort of sex she has, what sort of danger she puts herself in looking to satisfy that craving inside of her, it doesn’t work. She is able to have satisfactory sex but she can’t replicate that total feeling of being one with another person. It is a long seven years of searching before Mr Clark returns to her life. Even though Sarah is older and a stronger person, she’s still almost helpless in the face of her former teacher and lover – she tries to rebel in her own way, tries to even fight the restrictions he wants to place on her but time and time again she is drawn back to him. They cannot escape each other’s powerful orbit even though what takes place within that orbit ultimately has the power to destroy them both.

This book is packed full of literary references – as I mentioned Sarah is a voracious reader and her and Mr Clark argue and discuss all manner of books, poetry and plays. In fact reading Taming The Beast has inspired me to finally pick up Jane Eyre which is referenced several times throughout this book. Jane Eyre has been on my TBR list for about five years but one of the things mentioned in this book is what made me go and get it down off the shelf pretty much as soon as I finished:

“Have you read Jane Eyre?” she asked.
“Have I…” he was audibly surprised, but recovered quickly. “Ah yes, yes, I think so, at school. A long time ago.”
“Do you remember why Jane leaves the comfort of Thornfield Hall even though she will be homeless and poverty-stricken? Why she voluntarily reduces her station in life from governess to beggar?”
“I don’t…” He chuckled into her hair. “I wasn’t expecting a test. I haven’t studied.”
“She left because her dignity was worth more to her than her comfort.” Sarah turned around and looked up into his face. “And that’s why I live like this.”

Like Jane, Sarah’s dignity means more to her than her comfort. She lives in a squalid flat after her family fail to help her when something horrific happens to her, preferring that to staying in the family home with people who treated her in such a way. She at least has her dignity and her freedom to live her life the way she chooses, even if she doesn’t have comfort.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as simply the summary of a tawdry and illegal affair – but it isn’t just that. It is so much more than that. It’s the story of a girl and then a woman who is desperately trying to find something that makes her feel. What makes her feel isn’t what makes me feel but it doesn’t render her story any less valid. The characters are so vividly real in this book, in all their flawed glory that it was hard for me to forget that it is fiction (tying in to what was talked about in that Sex & Sensibility panel!). It’s a beautifully written book, raw and very powerful story telling but it’s not for everyone. It doesn’t hold back and there are passages that are hard to read… but they complete the story. And I think it’s brilliantly done.

I have Maguire’s latest novel, Fishing For Tigers here (also picked up at MWF) and I cannot wait to read it after finishing this one. I’m also buying The Gospel According To Luke as soon as I can.


Book #176 of 2012

Taming The Beast is the 58th novel read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.

3 responses to “Taming The Beast – Emily Maguire

  1. Willa says:

    This is the first time I’ve seen a review of this one and funnily enough, I have one lurking around in my drafts folder!! I’ve read this book twice now and I have to agree with you – it is more than it seems at first glance. Although I was repulsed by several parts of the book, I find it fascinating, they way Sarah and Mr. Clark are drawn to each other even though they are obviously no good to each other. Will definitely give her other books a try, great writer!

    • I was repulsed by a few bits too, some scenes were really uncomfortable to read, especially towards the end but overall I felt it was such an interesting story and so well written. I’d love to see your review once you post it!

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