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Book review Poignant meditation on the ‘squalid and precious’ experiences of sex, identity and loss

Desire: A Memoir
by Jonathan Dollimore
(Bloomsbury, £19.99)

IN JONATHAN DOLLIMORE'S unflinching memoir, the writer, academic and cultural critic deals openly with issues of sexual identity, lost love and the gay sub-cultures of the 1970s to the 1990s.

It begins with a poignant vignette in which Dollimore, a teenage boy from a working-class background, sees his mother in her car with an adult friend of the family who is trying to have sex with her — a man who'd also been having sex with him, “teaching” him to desire.

Those complex events seem to mark a rite of passage for the narrator, a watershed that later opens up a whole series of episodes in his life — from bike accidents, to risky sexual encounters, to suicidal depression — through to finding a voice as a writer and academic.

As Dollimore explains, as he embarks on a fascinating personal odyssey, the book is about “other things, other desires, including the ambition of a barely literate boy, who’d left school at 15 to work in a factory, to escape that destiny and become a writer.”

For the author, to experience life always involves a sense of loss, of things in constant tension, including “the squalid and the precious, the suicidal and the elated, the sublime and the absurd, the tender and the callous and the dangerous and the beautiful.” Memory and desire “exile us from the sublime purity of inanimate nature, making us hostages of both a past and a future,” he writes.

Witty and occasionally outright hilarious, these reminiscences are a hybrid of autobiography, meditation and philosophical reflection that intersperse quotes by many of the writers, thinkers and philosophers whom Dollimore admires.

And, in an unashamed trip down memory lane, he takes us from a sleepy town near Luton where the narrator was raised in the 1960s to the seedy streets of the East Village in New York during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, on to a vibrant Sydney and back to Brighton, where he eventually fathered two daughters.

This memoir is a moving and honest exploration of the self through the different kinds of desires that are as strong and fierce as the experiences Dollimore describes with truth and tenderness.
It's a brilliant and poignant book, more so as it marks 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts.



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