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Working Girls

2014 (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)

Three sisters--Natalia, Lena, and Julia--are young, attractive, and of working age in Kherson, a small city in the south of post-Soviet Ukraine. They are also practical and ambitious, wanting to see what possibilities lay before them amidst a time of historical challenges to their country. Their young life-spans parallel the upheavals, revolutions, and conflicts within their region--from the collapse of the Berlin Wall and their country´s independence from Russia, to the plummeting devaluation of the ruble and a bloody war in nearby Chechnya. There is employment within their small Eastern European city of less than 300,000, but the pay is extremely low, compared to what they could make in a shorter period of time in central Europe. Through a number of connections, the trio choose a path familiar to many of their peers: use their physical beauty to work in the West for a few months as a sex worker, and then return home to Ukraine with their newfound riches to build a better life.

Such is the premise of Twisted, a "dark erotic" novel originally published in 2014--the same year as Ukraine´s Maiden Revolution (which lead to the overthrow of Yanukovych´s government) as well as Russia´s annexation of the Crimean peninsula (a move which many believe laid the groundwork for the present-day war between Ukraine and Russia, now entering its second month). The first in a trilogy (its sequel, Craved, came out in 2015), author Lola Smirnova has stated in numerous interviews that the events these fictional characters experience are "based on real events". Even if one doesn´t know much about the author´s personal biography, there are a number of parallels between her life and this literary narrative (ie Smirnova is also from Ukraine; she lives in South Africa, which is where the three sisters end up in Craved, etc). In a way, Twisted is a kind of bildungsroman; and while all of these sisters feature prominently within Smirnova´s novel, the spotlight primarily shines darkly on the youngest, Julia.

Unlike other books (fiction as well as non) which address being a sex-worker, the world of Twisted is brutal, dangerous, and precarious. The first third of the book takes place in Luxembourg, where the three ostensibly work as strippers. Transactions of what Julia and the others will do is based on the size of the champagne bottle the customer (always male) purchases, with the real money coming from a 250 EUR bottle to be enjoyed upstairs in a private room. Competition over securing one of these clients is always fierce, and more often than not the men are, at best, creeps. Very occasionally we see kind men entering the world of this club, but for the most part, Smirnova describes how gross this work really is--from bodily fluids to the merciless psychology of the clientele and the management. While some readers may find these passages erotic, they seem intended to look at the grime of this world with an unblinking gaze.

Initially, Julia enjoys the work for its easy money, even if she has to frequently plug her nose (literally and metaphorically) while earning it. She is critical of her older sisters--Lena, who naively falls in love with a number of her customers, and Natalia, the eldest, who is always scolding their youngest sister for drinking too much champagne and doing way too much cocaine to do her job effectively and safely. Julia´s drug addiction ultimately leads her to get her kicked out of the club in Luxembourg, and she spends the last couple of months performing live masturbation for a peepshow. The eve of her return to Ukraine, she is drugged by a former customer, a fellow Ukrainian, and has most of her six months´ earnings stolen. She returns to Kherson with her sisters in shame, but refuses to acknowledge any responsibility--even though the theft breaks a plan by the three siblings to get an apartment of their own, away from living with their parents. Julia´s actions impact the lives and the choices of Natalia and Lena, but it takes her until the end of Twisted to finally mature, to recognize her role in the events of her own life, and to cease blaming others.

The final chapters of Smirnova´s novel occur months later in Istanbul, where Julia chooses to carve out her own path as a prostitute against the warnings of her sisters, who email from Paris, where they are working in a club similar to the one in Luxembourg. Throughout the novel, we are reminded of the varying economies of these different nations, and their different perceptions of sex workers. In addition to her sisters, all of the sex workers in the book are from Ukraine, Russia, or Hungary. Whether Turkish or French, the men that pay for the sexual services of Julia are often brutal, degrading, and humiliating. Amazingly, she continues to hope for the best, frequently choosing to believe their promises of commitment, their easy gestures of affection. Sometimes, this is maddeningly to read about--doesn´t Julia realize that these men are not to be trusted? But it´s important to remember that she is only 18-19 years old inTwisted, and is still learning, still growing. Even her older and (slightly) wiser sisters have to re-learn some hard lessons a few times in the book, before they can achieve the freedom and agency with which they seek.

Smirnova´s prose is blunt and direct. She is unafraid and unapologetic about describing what it is like to exist within this world, as well as to articulate what some of the reasons are for young women (particularly from Eastern Europe) to enter into this field for money. There are moments of suspense and intrigue here, but while Twisted is advertised as a "dark erotic" story, sexual arousal doesn´t seem to be the aim. Instead, Smirnova seeks to push the reader into this underground scene, lock the door behind us, and not let us out until dawn, when (if we´re lucky) we can stumble out with a hangover and only a few minor injuries.

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