In Saskia Vogel’s debut novel, Permission (May 7), erotic Los Angeles comes alive for Echo, a struggling actress grieving her father’s fall from a sea cliff near the family home.  

“Before I grew old, the land would claim our bodies and we would rise again as ghosts,” Vogel writes in the book’s first chapter, introducing Echo’s life-altering loss. “Ghosts, like the young woman who haunted the lighthouse. She had thrown herself off these cliffs when she was sure her sailor would never return. She entered into oblivion to find him. It was the most romantic story I knew. I liked to imagine love’s oblivion. A yielding of the self to sensation, a sensation that belonged to the nights I fell asleep with my hands cupped between my legs, comforted.”

“I enjoyed putting these two forces of nature together, the landscape and the erotic,” says Vogel, an LA-born, Berlin-based English-to-Swedish translator and writer whose criticism focuses on gender, power, and sexuality. “Those two major preoccupations, or questions, came up for me while I was growing up in LA, and [reemerged when] I moved back for awhile in my twenties, which is when many of the questions of the book were born.”

 “In Wallace Stegner’s ‘Wilderness Letter,’ he talks about the wilderness as the force against which human nature, or a character of a people, is shaped,” she says. “What if you take away the patriarch, the force against which Echo and her mum have shaped their lives?” 

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Grief over the missing man further divides Echo from her mother, “whose refusal to be pleased was a form of tyranny,” Vogel writes. Seeking solace in Orly, a local dominatrix, she reconsiders her sense of place, relationships, pleasure, and pain.  

“Only after I met Orly and understood that loving in the way you love is not enough—you have to pay attention to how people need and want to be loved—did I come to realize that [my parents] were blind to each other,” she writes. 

Opening her eyes to the erotic potential all around her, Echo begins to heal and find fulfillment.

“Echo and the novel, in general, see the world through an erotic lens,” Vogel says. “If I had a scientist main character, they’d be talking about atmospheric pressure, or whatever it may be, but Echo, instead, is a sensualist in a world that doesn’t allow her to be one. The erotic is the filter. She’s really interested in pleasure, but Permission that’s a provocative position.

“I talk about Audre Lorde’s ‘Uses of the Erotic’ a lot,” she says, “because it was an essay that was really important to me when I was researching and writing the book. [Lorde] talks about how we are so used to pushing down and ignoring the erotic as a source of insight and knowledge and power, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to combat with this book.”

Kirkus calls this stimulating story “an intimate study of power within two of the relationships that define us most precisely—that of lover and that of child.” 

“My goal was to write the least sensational book about sex possible,” Vogel says. “I want to open up the kind of space where we can actually think about sex and sexuality, think about the erotic…and look at what kind of insight is available to us when we don’t shove sex into a corner of, ‘It’s either erotica or porn, or it’s literature.’ ” 

Megan Labrise is the editor at large and cohost of Kirkus’ Fully Booked podcast. Permission was reviewed in the March 1, 2019, issue.