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Prayer Cushions Of The Flesh
Robert Irwin
Overlook hardcover $22.95

review by Amy Harlib

Robert Irwin, British historian and scholar of Medieval and Arabic History and author of several novels and works of nonfiction, uses his academic expertise to craft an exotic, erotic fantasy about life in the Harem of the Sultan of the Turkish Ottoman Empire during a vaguely defined Imperial era.

The story centres on the youthful prince Orkhan who suddenly, in the beginning of the tale, gets released from a lifetime kept confined in the Cage of the Imperial Harem. He finds himself acclaimed as the new Sultan by the Harem's concubines, the eunuchs and the enigmatic, oddly sinister dwarf vizier. Naive yet passionate and utterly ignorant of the outside world, Orkhan must learn to survive the intrigues and evil plots that flourish amidst the boredom and isolation of palace life.

The book follows the protagonist's maturation from his delusions that he rules the women in the Harem when, in truth, he gets manipulated into a number of perverse relationships and sexual adventures stage-managed by Harem ringleaders, devotees of the 'Prayer Cushion Movement'. The adherents believe that extreme sensual sensations represent communication with the divine. At first Orkhan eagerly participates in the escapades orchestrated by odalisques Anadil, Mihrimah and Roxelana who introduce him to all manner of sexual practices involving every orifice of the body and including bondage and discipline, aphrodisiac substances, dildoes, etc.

Gradually Orkhan senses a sinister undertone to the proceedings while paradoxically being drawn to the presence of the matronly washerwoman for the Harem inhabitants, Perizade. Her fondness for the prince, while also expressed physically (she practices the 'art' of phallomancy - divination by examining the shape and colour of the penis!), contains motherly warmth otherwise lacking in the younger women.

The concubines' lures of temptation, seduction, magical spells and even storytelling nearly succeed in convincing the Sultan-in-name-only, Orkhan, to participate in a climactic event intended to be at once ecstatic and fatal - the possible fate of all his predecessors. How Orkhan gradually learns to enjoy the delights of the flesh without being overwhelmed and how he takes his fate into his own hands as it were and Perizade's surprising role in the resolution culminates in a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to this fascinating exercise in orientalism.

Clearly inspired by Arabian Nights tales in their original unexpurgated form, Robert Irwin cleverly employs their trappings to tell a darkly erotic fable about the perversion of love and beauty when these uplifting aspects of human existence become poisoned in a hothouse atmosphere (of an Imperial Harem, specifically), where one gender is given absolute power over another.

The path to discovery however, in Prayer Cushions Of The Flesh, lies strewn with all manner of variations on a theme as one reads about sex: with men (Orkhan enjoyed incestuous experimentation with his brothers before he was liberated from the Cage); women; fairies; alligators(!); eunuchs; transvestites; masochists; dominatrixes - all this serving to appall, delight, surprise and enthral by turns.

Prayer Cushions Of The Flesh effectively celebrates life in all its strange variety even as it examines with macabre irony, the erotica of death. Irwin's exercise in fevered imaginings can be recommended to daring mature readers willing to explore the bizarre by-ways of fantasy.
Prayer Cushions of the Flesh

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