Hand-cuffed, ball-gagged and wearing nothing but a motorcycle helmet – not your typical introduction, but it’s how readers first meet Julia, a young Ukrainian woman whose ambitions for a better life land her in an illogical place: the seedy world of the sex trade industry.
The story centers on the escapades of Julia, who follows the lead of her more experienced sisters, Nataliya and Lena, by seeking work in a Luxembourg champagne club – a shifty European bordello where clients purchase bottles of bubbly along with sexual favors. While the pay far exceeds Julia’s earning potential in her native country, there are many trade-offs that threaten to undermine her well-being, safety and aspirations for a financially secure future.
Her occupational lark quickly turns grim, dragging Julia deeper into the murky world of prostitution. In order to stomach the more disturbing realities – many of which are graphically described – she insulates herself with drugs. When her addiction spirals out of control, she is turned out by the club owner and forced to take her services elsewhere. As Julia navigates the maze of sex-for-money on her own, she encounters an increasingly perverted clientele as well as the usual suspects: thieves, liars and the occasional maniac. Crises loom, bloom and resolve to a point, which keeps the reader turning the pages.
That’s an even greater accomplishment considering that the writing is heavily flawed. As the narrator, Julia is inexplicably omniscient at times, and there are several instances of confusing shifts in voice and awkward dialogue. The allusion to an “ugly” incident involving Julia and Lena’s first love, Serega, is set up early as a pivotal event, but falls flat when the revelation is finally delivered. Rather than providing insight, it comes across as a weak attempt to explain Julia, a woman who – in one of the few moments readers are invited to go deeper into her psyche – declares she is comfortable with her moral choices because she is a “pro.”
The author does, however, offer a compelling insider’s view into the economically depressed and politically rumpled Ukraine from which she hails. These glimpses provide meaningful context to the story, helping readers to better understand why a woman would turn to prostitution to escape a country in which dreams die and education results in, at best, moving a few rungs up the poverty ladder.
This is not a novel for the squeamish – sexual depravity is depicted with a gruesome realism that suggests this author, who once worked in the sex industry, is blurring lines between fiction and truth. The authentic feel of these moments is tough to turn away from, however, even when Julia knowingly subjects herself to situations that send the sirens going off in her own head as well as the reader’s.
TWISTED moves at a steady clip, though the author stumps her toe on more than one occasion. While the subject matter does not make for a light read, a breezy writing style and Julia’s willingness to fully and shamelessly lift the veil on her controversial lifestyle makes an irresistible combination.
Reviewed by Libby Swope Wiersema for IndieReader.