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Exploring Charlotte Roche's Wetlands
Article by Carolyn Kelly

This raucous romp through the bodily functions and fluids of an 18-year-old woman was the runaway bestseller in Germany in 2008, selling a million copies and topping the international Amazon sales list—an unheard of feat for a German-language novel. "Wetlands" has now been translated into English by Playboy editor Tim Mohr. Yes, by Playboy editor Tim Mohr, so not unsurprisingly, "Wetlands" is not about idyllic marshy landscapes under wide skies, with the lonesome call of the curlew in the background, but rather concerns a sexually profligate teenager, languishing in hospital as the result of a painful anal fissure sustained while trying to shave her own bum. And that's just the first page.

Causing outrage and glee in equal measure upon its publication in Germany, "Wetlands" rightly takes its place among the most sensational books currently on offer. Ostensibly the story of a mixed-up girl, sad about her parents' divorce and desperate to get them back together again, it is actually full of humour and brio, not to mention very explicit references to just about every bodily fluid and every intimate body part you can think of. Helen, our heroine, gives us a book-long monologue about her passion for sex, blood, haemorrhoids, pus, mucus, puke and a few other wet things that don't need to be mentioned here.

Much of the controversy has raged around the pornographic nature of the book, and to what extent it is a feminist work. Definitions of porn differ greatly, of course, and to my mind it is connected with exploitation, so I actually consider the sexually explicit content of "Wetland" to be part rallying call, part sad compensation of a traumatised person. As for the feminist argument: Surprisingly, it is quite strong. The book can be read as a tirade against the "personal hygiene" industry, where women feel compelled to shave all of their bodily hair and to cover up all natural smells by showering and applying scented chemicals. This harks back to the good old 1970s, of course, but perhaps such thoughts are even more important now than then, particularly for today's teenagers, confronted by a media that is saturated with all-consuming, very capitalist expectations on women to be perfect, to have flawless bodies. For all her mania, Helen often shines as a refreshing argument against the prevailing beauty machinery of modern life, showing us that it is easier to feel more like a woman, and to enjoy sex, without spa treatments, peelings, manicures and starvation diets. And that point—enjoying sex and talking about it so freely—is the other feminist argument in favour of this book. As one German reviewer has pointed out, the book offers something for everyone: asceticism in the face of an overly sexualised society, but also sex tips for those in need of them.

"Wetlands" is without doubt a provocation, breaking as it does just about every taboo in the book. It is also disgusting and obscene, which turns many people off, but can be very compelling to others. Its enormous readership in Germany is testament to the fact that it has touched a fundamental nerve, and I don't think that's due to anything in the German psyche. I feel obliged to say that—from a literary perspective—the writing is poor, with a weak storyline, shallow characterisation and an implausible ending... but sometimes, perhaps, actual literary worth is of secondary importance.

I'd like to leave the last word to the author herself, taken from an interesting interview in the Guardian ( And if you do dip into "Wetlands", please let us know what you think!

"When it started off, I was afraid people would think it's me, but it's also fun. It gives me a sense of strength. Men think they can be disgusting and sexual and stuff, and now I've shown them that women can do the same. When I walk into a pub now, and I see men saying, 'Look, that's Charlotte Roche', it's as if I've stolen something from them. I like that feeling."

Charlotte Roche
About the Author

Charlotte Roche was born in England in 1978 and raised in Germany; where she still resides with her husband and daughter. She is a award-winning television personality in Germany, and Wetlands is her first novel.
Book cover

Book cover