Where Does Kissing End?

129 pages,
ISBN: 1852422777

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Pawing into the Void
by Christine Slater

There's a rather shameless mainlining of the zeitgeist in Kate Pullinger's novel Where Does Kissing End?, what with its psycho-sexual vampirism, amoral heroine, coolly erotic one-nighters, aimless love interest, and family ties so untenable they rot off the wrists. Despite all that, it's sharply entertaining.
The story traces the sexually charged relationship between Mina Savage (no pun intended, I'm sure), the self-described bastard of parents themselves illegitimate, and Stephen Smith, a young man from a comfortably cultural home, who has the bad luck to fall in love with her.
Set in modern London, a city nicely, though sparingly, evoked throughout the book, Stephen becomes obsessed with Mina, whom he meets at the travel agency where she works. Mina is icily self-possessed and in apparent need of no-one, including her perpetually dismayed and downtrodden mother, and her odd and intermittent father. Her parents continue their long-time assignations, despite a monumental lack of mutual interest, and thus set the scene for Mina's own skewered sense of family and commitment.
The father, Harry, passes on much of his own egotism (read: emotional selfishness) to his daughter, whom he is said to refer to as "that Savage bitch". However, this harsh, authorial pronouncement is not wholly supported further on, when Harry is described as a "fool" for his little girl. Unfortunately, her snug-and-cuddles on his beefy lap eerily invoke the preferred sexual position he employs with Mina's mother.
Indeed, throughout the book, Harry is a sadly underdeveloped character. Pullinger suggests that much more than Mina's hang-ups and self-interest are owed to her father; has he somehow "entered" her spirit in another, more intrusive, fashion? One involving blood, perhaps? After Mina's first masturbatory experience, she dreams of her dad. He holds her down and pulls her legs apart. "`Your mother lets me do it,' is all he says. `Your mother never objects.' " Significantly, soon after, Harry's room at night is filled with flickering light. He, too, feels pinned. He ultimately awakes, in sheets "speckled with blood and cum," and then his room grows dark again, as if something has left it. These sorts of pre-dawn visitations recur in the book, most particularly to Stephen, who experiences them in intense and ultimately life-threatening ways. If Pullinger is making a link between father and daughter, the exchange of blood beyond genes and DNA, she could rattle the ensuing chain a little louder. As it is, this connection with Harry, whatever it may be, remains unfulfilled, however tantalizing. And like anything teasingly out of reach, it can leave you frustrated and annoyed, pawing into the void.
Once Mina takes up with Stephen, the notions of darkness and light, consumption and drainage, temptation and its ultimately dreary fulfilment, are pronounced and perceptive, although for a long time, the connection between these two has less to do with romance than it does with imaginatively positioned sex. In a slick twist, Stephen is the unfocused one, uncertain of career and place. Mina is ambitious (up to and including having sex with her boss at the Christmas party, a not especially original or worthwhile aside to the story) and drowns her own doubts, which are apparently, and for good reason, legion, in work and predatory sex. Stephen, the son of an aspiring psychoanalyst, is obsessively self-examining: he's the one who sits at home wondering why his lover hasn't called. Mina, on the other hand, "has an ugly relationship with herself...and is driven without knowing why or by what....She dyes her dark hair darker because she hates its natural colour; she spends too much money on cosmetics because she dislikes her skin. Her relationship with her own body can only be described as penitential...."
Throughout, Mina suffers from inexplicable (or are they?) blackouts, becomes alternately translucent and hearty, and slowly becomes as consumed by Stephen as he is by her. Pullinger's style in delineating this is economical and effective. However, despite moments of genuinely sharp observation, her use of metaphor and description can be clunky and self-indulgent, even if it only involves an extra word or two. "He can feel her teeth occasionally," she writes, "they brush against his skin like stinging nettles..." This would be a fine line if Pullinger hadn't added the obvious "in the woods". Sentences like this are fairly frequent and because the book is slim and tidy, they seem particularly jarring. It's like being in the backseat while your driver, usually steady and expert, hits the gas over a row of speedbumps.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, also apt in these slack (or slacker) times, Mina and Stephen do actually get together, although the cost to Stephen, physically, grows increasingly evident: his life retreats into dream-ridden disarray. He grows listless and fat. His flat becomes rank. Mina, on the other hand, is described as "thriving". She now knows that she needs Stephen "in order to survive."
Despite the occasional slip into the usual, turgid clichés surrounding vampirism: sleekness masking terrible decay, seeking one's reflection in the dark, the hunt for, and tapping of, blood as a metaphor for sex, Pullinger has produced a tight little book. Where Does Kissing End? has deftness and panache, and more originality than one might expect given how quickly the subject-matter can be overworked to the point of satire. This novel is not satire: it's scarier than that. It asks more from its readers as well; and finally, rewards them. This is not high romance, this thing between Mina and Stephen. It is deeper, darker, more dangerous. But the veneer, the urban setting, the packaged holidays to Mediterranean resorts, dinner with Mum and Dad, is disconcertingly normal. And, like all the monsters who have cropped up in our midst, the ones we find most fascinating are the ones who resemble us the most.

Christine Slater is the author of the recently published Certain Dead Soldiers (Key Porter).


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