Title: Nothing But My Body
Author: Tilly Lawless
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
Born in regional NSW, Tilly Lawless moved to Sydney to attend university as a history student. Becoming a sex worker meant she was able to earn an income while still allowing time for study. She continues her sex work as well as advocating for sex workers and writing about her interests which are broad, and encompass climate change, politics, mental health and queer issues.
This novel is structured to reflect eight consecutive days of the week – from one Saturday to the next. However, the days themselves are not consecutive but occur over a period of 13 months. The locations vary, with no two days occurring at the same place. A range of Sydney brothels – or ‘broths’ as the narrator calls them – and one in an outback NSW town, and the places she meets with clients at their home or workplace, form most of the backdrops. Settings also include Berlin, the location of a combined work (to meet a client booked online) and pleasure trip – she describes partying at a nightclub there; her own home and those of friends; a trip back to the rural area she grew up in; beaches, mainly clothing-optional; and the various venues she attended for Mardi Gras, 2020.
The events in the novel take place over the time of the devastating bushfires of 2018/19 and the first few months of the covid pandemic. The strain of breathing smoke-filled air for weeks on end and the effects of covid restrictions add to the already existing results of an abusive relationship (or was it more than one?) the narrator escaped from physically, but which haunts her mentally and emotionally. Allusions are made to episodes of self-harm and alcoholism, now both under control but with an ongoing impact on her life and mental state. Another impact is her propensity to engage in problematic online relationships and then agonise over them.
While all this sounds dark and heavy there is a sparkling poeticism to the way the author describes the life of the protagonist. ‘Maddy’ (her working name) engages with a range of political and cultural questions, seeing in her life and the lives of those she engages with – friends, clients, and co-workers alike – events which allow her to address the humanity and dignity of each individual. She juggles the apparent inconsistencies of being a lesbian while having sex with men for profit. And she makes central the relationships she has which sustain and nurture her, as she nurtures her friends.
This is in parts a challenging and confronting book with its explicitness around some of the experiences, both professional and personal, that Maddy endures. Its rawness highlights an honesty that is spare, thoughtful, and real. Most of all, it is imbued with an optimism that is very welcome right now.
Reviewed by: Elisabeth Bridson
Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group
Review copy provided by the publisher