Grow a Pair: 9½ Fairytales About Sex – Joanna Walsh

You’d assume a short story collection about sex might focus on the act(s) itself but whilst Walsh’s stories do include a number of sex acts – penetration, masturbation, orgies, remote sex – Grow a Pair concerns itself mostly with transformations.

A girl passed a penis-bush growing in someone else’s garden, and picked a ripe dick because she couldn’t resist it. It came off easily in her hand. She took it home and tried it on right away, knowing that, like the peas in her icebox (‘from field to fresh in under one hour!’) it would be better fresh.

From the very opening sentences of the first story to the end of the afterword transformations occur: characters adopt and change their genitalia; a man becomes a woman; a queen becomes a witch; a woman fragments into multiple vaginas.

These changes are explored from the point-of-view of the person transformed and occasionally in terms of their affect on others. The girl who discovers the penis-bush ‘wondered if she was in the right bathroom but when she tried the men’s she left, overcome by a similar unsettling feeling’. ‘Just because I have a dick now, doesn’t mean I am a man’, she tells her girlfriend who shies away from the penis, inviting her friends over to take a look at it instead. They remain unimpressed.

Of all the characters, these women are the only ones to spend little time thinking about sex. For others, it seems to preoccupy them. This is particularly true of the virgin princess and the three big dicks, the only two stories in the collection that are direct transformations of well-known fairy stories.

The princess in ‘The Princess and the Penis’ has ‘never met a cock IRL’, she’s only seen photographs sent by acquaintances:

She was waiting for her one true cock, but none of the cocks in the photos seemed to fit. She wanted one that would fit like a glove, or rather like the finger of a glove which she used on herself while waiting for the proper cock to arrive.

She invites men to the palace, guillotines their penis and places each one in turn under a stack of mattresses, waiting for the one.

Similarly, the three big dicks are searching for pussy. They procure different materials with which to build their own pussy and I’m sure you can see where this is going. The problem, however, like any big dick is that when one of them goes for a walk:

No sooner had he stepped from its shade into a wide green meadow than he met a cunt, which he failed to recognise, never having encountered one before.

Walsh’s stories are filled with touches of humour. One of the many penises in the book turns out to be a speaking cock.

I don’t know what it said to her – I wasn’t there – but it was something dickish …The cock shouted something even more prickish…

As well as the intertextuality of fairy stories and fairy tale convention, in ‘The Minutes of a Meeting Between Mrs Darsie Hurlbutt, Hortense Shakely, Raymond Maths and Doctor Maxman, Including a Skype Call from Mrs Gustie Slovak’ the characters’ speech is taken verbatim from spam emails:

Hortense Shakley (who is a man) said, Wanna get laid tonight?

Doctor Maxman said, Make her shiver in ecstasy and desire more!

Raymond Maths said, S..A..F_E_-&_F-A..S..T..—P_E N I S___-E N..L-A R-G E M-E N_T-

Again, this alludes to the amount of time and to the extent which sex penetrates (pun intended) our days. As in real life, the characters in these fairytales are divided into those who go hunting for sexual organs and those who stumble across them.

It would be easy to dismiss Grow a Pair as a bit of fun, transforming fairytales from moralistic stories designed to keep women and children in their place to titillating narratives about sexual experimentation but to do so would undermine the ideas they explore. Walsh considers whether we’re defined by our genitalia, whether our sexual organs make us male or female. Her women aren’t sexually passive, they have control of their own sexuality and aren’t afraid to seek out whatever fulfilment they desire. It’s a confident collection, satisfying in terms of its links between stories as characters’ paths cross at different points. It’s also highly entertaining as well as being smart and thoughtful.

There’s an interesting moment at the end of ‘Simple Hans’ when, after amputating part of a woman’s body, he says:

I’m trying to tell you what it was – to cut into this thing that should be sacred, the thing we can’t question, to make it a thing just like any other – which is what it becomes when you cut into it, when you cut it off.

By cutting into sex, female desire, genitalia and gender identity, hopefully Grow a Pair will contribute to the conversation that takes sexual behaviour out of a prescribed patriarchal/hetero/cis fairytale world and into one where sex is ‘a thing just like any other’.

 

Thanks to Readux for the review copy.

11 thoughts on “Grow a Pair: 9½ Fairytales About Sex – Joanna Walsh

  1. Wow, this sounds weird but intriguing. I’m for anything that gets that debate going you talk of at the end of your review. Great write up!

    • Thanks, Sarah. You definitely need to suspend thoughts of realism but like all fairytales, these are underpinned by ‘real world’ ideas. It’s a great collection.

  2. I’d quite like to read this but I’m not sure I can order it without altering my online recommendations beyond recognition! If Vertigo is anything to go by, Walsh can certainly write.

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