Sun, Sand, Sea And Sex

Review: 'Pleasure Beach' by Helen Palmer
June 20, 2023

Helen Palmer's debut novel Pleasure Beach is a queer love story set in Blackpool and follows the interconnecting journeys of three 19-year-old women through a single day in 1999. Who Knew Blackpool could be sexy? You could be one short tram ride away from meeting the love of your life.

Inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses and Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, the experimental novel spans multiple voices and styles across eighteen chapters. It is a manic tale of sun, sand, sea and sex. Much like Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who wanders for ten years trying to get home from the Trojan war, I felt like it had taken me ten years to get to the end of the 324 pages.

It will take you on a ride more mind-numbing than the Pepsi Max as you try to follow wannabe playwright Olga's crazy acid-induced stream of consciousness. Like The Odyssey, the book is not linear and can be confusing to follow. You deserve a fresh hot sugar donut and the sand between your toes if you can get through it without a tension headache. Luckily, you do not need to read the twenty-four books in The Odyssey to appreciate the 24-hour adventure in Pleasure Beach.

Olga nurses a painful hangover on her walk across the prom to her shift at the chippy, suffering from beer fear and desperately trying to recall what happened with Rachel Watkins. I am sure we can all relate to the hangxiety. Thankfully, I have never had to deal with a hangover and the overwhelming smell of fish shop grease at the same time. It will leave you feeling more battered than a battered sausage.

Rachel is a troubled and fragile girl who loves to ruminate on the theories of dead French philosophers until she spirals into an existential crisis or sends the reader into one. The philosophical thought exercises all lead her straight back to her new-found obsession with Olga. Former gymnast and teenage mum Treesa ventures to the Sandcastle Waterpark and enjoys the simple pleasures of a sausage and egg McMuffin on the way.

It takes me back to sitting in my friend's flat until 8am with an army of empty wine bottles around us, hissing at the sunlight breaking through the blinds as a rude awakening. His hamster, Popcorn (aka ‘The Dude’), ran around in a frenzy inside his little ball. The world felt like a big hamster ball, and I felt like a tiny hamster with no choice but to keep on running. My friend Elliot mischievously explained the “apple in a box” theory, knowing he would break my poor intoxicated brain.

The theory is an expression of infinity that he used to convince us we would sit in his flat an endless number of times, reliving the same trip over and over and over again. You are the hamster in the ball or the apple in the box. He would say, “everything means everything and everything means nothing.”  It hurt my brain more than Descartes and Kant in A Level Philosophy ever did. I am now convinced Elliot, much like Palmer, is an evil mastermind.

The novel takes you on the Alice in Wonderland ride; it will make you feel like you have taken a tab of acid (not that I would know) and the words are rearranging and flying off the page just to spite you. It is both mesmerising and frightening at the same time. It will leave you questioning both your sanity and reading comprehension skills. Part of me was worried that Palmer would personally strip me of my A in A Level English Literature.

Whilst I do not think it is the most accessible book, I appreciate Palmer’s playfulness and the poetic and rhythmic quality to her prose. She is a Blackpool-born writer who has managed to transport me back to my childhood; I will always remember eating a stick of rock and riding a donkey on the beach. It feels strange to say that my next trip to Blackpool would more likely be for a wild hen party where the girls would ride something other than donkeys.

I challenge anyone reading this review to pick up Pleasure Beach for a wave of nostalgia and a whole new outlook on both Blackpool and the English language.

Pleasure Beach By Helen Palmer is published by Prototype Publishing