Review: Unmastered by Katherine Angel


Vanda Lawrence reviews Unmastered by Katherine Angel

I first read the book ‘Unmastered’ four years ago and was profoundly moved by its beauty, pain, courage, and simplicity. The book is written in fluid prose poetry and the first part explores the dynamics of passionate love and the transforming power of desire, and sexual fulfilment.

I feel it when we stir in sleep. And I feel it when we are on the rugged tracks of desire, careering toward something, pinching this way and that, threatening to tip over any moment; when his hands are in my hair, and he is inside me, and I am biting him, and we are all teeth and claws and wings


I don’t remember what we do. A wash, a smudge of memory – memory of time stretched, unstructured, no time. I remember feeling so heavily happy, so drowsily arrived. That I could feel my organs, their ripeness, their contentment.

I want my desire to be exhausted.

In its oldest form the word ‘vnmastred’ meaning uncontrolled, unrestrained. Shakespeare, in the 1500’s, uses the word in ‘Hamlet’ 1.111.32 {when Laertes warns Ophelia not to yield to Hamlet] or your chaste treasure open / To his unmastered importunity. In common parlance we have ‘the master bedroom’ but to envisage a world with ‘the mistress bedroom’ conjures, a glorious anarchy, which would make dating sites redundant.

The literary Canon is groaning with books about male sexuality, most famously, D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ where the female is present yet unconscious, with chilling undertones of drug rape and sexual abuse.

She lay still, in a kind of sleep, always in a kind of sleep. The activity, the orgasm was his, all his; she could strive for herself no more. Even the tightness of his arms around her, even the intense movement of his body, and the springing of his seed in her, was a kind of sleep, from which she did not begin to rouse till he had finished and lay softly panting on her breast

Historically and culturally, women have been subjugated and denied access to knowledge and empowerment, but sexuality, by its very nature, transcends social constructions. It is the awakening instinct, timeless, visceral, untamed. This, power, to create and recreate has been and still is the greatest challenge to patriarchy.

‘Unmastered’ is written in first person, in the voice of a young, heterosexual, woman. She is not named; but she does not need to be. She is every woman. Every woman who has ever been engulfed by sexual desire and encounters the limitations inherent in her relationship.

You know that deep well of fear that flickers in your eyes? I can see it, I can feel it, and I am telling you that it does not exist. I am pouring myself into that well; I block it up with my sympathy, my empathy, my acute feelings for your anxiety.

I am proof of your masculinity, of your endless potency.

I must reassure you.

This I must do

So even in the twentieth first century, women, all women, need to manoeuvre skilfully, to be mindful of being enough, without being too much, or worse, much more, than a man. To revolt is often a gamble, as Amber Heard has recently discovered. Money and celebrity are no protection against scornful, hate fuelled, internet abuse, and domestic violence.


Angel uses the blank page to significant effect in this book. When she comes to the character’s unplanned pregnancy, and the dissonance surrounding it, she chooses space, the void, a suit in which the player is dealt no cards. ‘Left Almost Mute’ is an apt and perfect phrase for the emotional abandonment of the character, who is confronted by a world, crashing, in judgement and certainty, leaving her hope and vulnerability painfully exposed.

I made a decision. We made a decision, thinking it is a decision you can make together, that means the same for you both.

Except that you don’t, you aren’t, you can’t.

You cannot mourn, you cannot claim grief, when you have made a decision. Right?

This question, articulated so brilliantly, demolishes all the neat pro-choice, pro-life arguments, and wipes out the anti-abortion diatribe. Here we have the unbearable dilemma of ‘the choice,’ which in reality is ‘no choice’ just a last-minute, plea bargain, in a desperate state. The polarised public debate, the logical insistence, the virtual absence of the man, and the pressure of time, only compound the character’s isolation, suffering and loss. 

As Andrea Dworkin said,

No one must face a woman refusing to be bound by pregnancy. The women who rebel against their function must do it secretly, not causing grief, embarrassment, or confusion to other women isolated in their own reproductive quagmires, each on her own, each alone, each being a woman for all women in silence and in solitude.

‘Unmastered’ looks unflinchingly at the aftermath of abortion and what it does to the interior life of the woman, how it eventually spills out, into all other areas of her life. She is functioning, living, whilst suffering an unimaginable grief. She cannot honour her loss because to do so would mean acknowledging her right, to her own life. For this there is a price to be paid. 

The following winter I barely went out. I became frightened of dark streets, of being alone. I became near phobic of anything gory. I cried uncontrollably in concerts and films, switching back into conversations afterwards, a tap turned off.

My throat closed up

I stopped singing.

The man disappears, either literally or figuratively, his role in the trauma rubbed out, as he refuses to acknowledge his responsibility to the woman, the unborn, or himself.

But then if he hadn’t been so stuck – so hesitant – so absent from himself, and also then from me, from us – if he had been more embracing of life, of his own life and of ours, then perhaps my grief would not have thrived, would not have grown so hungrily

Recently the film ‘Happening’ based on the novel by Annie Ernaux and beautifully directed by Audrey Diwan, about a college student who finds herself pregnant in 1960’s France, shone an unflinching, harrowing light, on illegal abortion. It coincided, shockingly, with the news that the Supreme Court in the USA has overturned the Roe v Wade legislation which will outlaw abortion for over half the female population of the U.S.A.

At the Almeida theatre in London, the play ‘House of Shades ‘set in 1950’s Britain, by Beth Steel, exposes a brutal working-class society, unwilling to find compassion and understanding for a mother, who performs an illegal abortion on her teenage daughter, as she is unable to cope with another pregnancy in the family. In a recent radio interview with the lead Actress Ann-Marie Duff, Emma Barton asked about the central female character, saying, that ‘she destroys so many people’ In response, Ann- Marie said, ‘Unless you get to testify, unless you get to own your own story, you’re constantly asking for people to listen to you’

The Artist Tracey Emin, speaking to BBC radio, recounted her experience of abortion in the early 1990’s when she had just completed college. She said ‘As a deranged punishment to myself, I stopped painting. I just couldn’t paint anymore’ She also destroyed her paintings and threw them into a skip. She made a video in 1996 entitled ‘How it feels’ and summed up the experience by saying

 ‘Abortion was a mistake, but it was the best fucking mistake of my life’

The Roe v Wade debate must go on and the supreme court judgment overturned if women are to be protected from the dangers of illegal abortion, but legislation is not enough. Abortion leaves an aching scar, smothered by the silence surrounding it. For it is not the rightness or wrongness of abortion that is so damaging, but the notion that this traumatic event can be reduced to a clinical procedure, without any consequence for the woman. 

 Katherine Angel’s book is a seamless triumph and testament. She takes the reader on an intimate journey from boundless joy, fun and pleasure, to the depths of sadness and loss in a unique and unexpected way.

Every woman who has the courage to speak out, through image, spoken word, art, theatre, literature, or dance and recounts her trauma, also transcends it. Our collective scar tissue will not harm us, it will fade in the sun and our sense memory will honour our experience.


Vanda is an Actor, Writer and Voice/Over artist who is particularly interested in Feminist Theatre. She has written and performed a one woman play about the last days of Marilyn Monroe ‘Who Would Believe Marilyn’ and her latest play ‘The Passion of Constance Markievicz’ about the Irish Revolutionary who took part in the Easter Rising, which she will perform and tour later this year.

1 September 2022