Saturday 26 May 2018

Books: Sexual menace to sibling rivalry

Flounders: Former journalist Fiona Barton's The Widow is based on scoop-hungry reporter Kate Waters.
Flounders: Former journalist Fiona Barton's The Widow is based on scoop-hungry reporter Kate Waters.

Janette Wolf

From an alcoholic sleuth to a sober hack, Janette Wolf delves into the latest thrillers from female authors

In Try Not to Breathe (Corvus), Holly Seddon gives us a former broadsheet-paper darling, now incontinent alcoholic (no, wait). Alex Dale's days are measured in fluid ounces as she paces her drinking with obsessive precision, dispatching her soiled bed linen each morning before counting down to her first bottle once more. What rescues her (and us) from this harrowing timetable is a coma victim, Amy, who lies inert in a nearby hospital. Attacked and left for dead many years before, Alex is drawn to the mystery of who left Amy like this and why. She is helped by a sympathetic, if slightly reluctant ex (a detective playing second fiddle no less). This is a top-notch psycho-drama, with plenty of red herrings and setbacks before Alex slowly regains her life and her self-respect.

Fiona Barton's debut, The Widow (Bantam Press) also features a reporter, the sober and scoop-hungry Kate Waters. Former journalist Barton has been in enough newsrooms to know how papers chase a big story and Kate's pursuit of an exclusive with the widow of a suspected child abductor is convincing. Kate's quarry and the novel's main narrator is Jeanie Taylor, a mousey, put-upon creature whose nervy witterings soon begin to grate. This novel has caused much hoohah and comparisons with Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, on account of Jeanie's crippling diffidence as spouse of a controlling and secretive husband. But whereas Rebecca swept all along in an undertow of sex and menace, The Widow has neither and leaves its rather sketchy ensemble cast to flounder.

There is plenty of sex and menace in Rebound (Macmillan), another debut novel, this time by Aga Lesiewicz. Anna Wright, the sole narrator, is a successful media executive. She lives in Highgate, drives a BMW and has a soppy Labrador called Wispa. Her existence is charmed and enables her to treat life with a confident sense of entitlement. While out jogging on Hampstead Heath one day, she finds herself turned on by the sight of two gay men sloping off into the undergrowth for a spot of alfresco hanky-panky. So the next fit bloke she sees in running shorts, she pounces on and ravishes. A series of violent rapes on the Heath do nothing to dampen Anna's growing obsession with Dior Man (it's his aftershave) and their wordless rutting continues episodically with great enthusiasm.

It takes some nasty violence close to home to jolt her out of her path of self-indulgent lust. Lesiewicz sets a scorching pace in this creepy thriller and leaves us gasping with a genuinely chilling pay-off.

In the final book of the quartet (another journalist's debut), Ann Morgan begins Beside Myself (Bloomsbury) on a hot summer afternoon when identical twins Ellie and Helen are scratching around for something to do. Helen, the narrator and bossier of two is particularly restless: "I want to unzip my skin and step into another me," she confides before hitting on the ideal solution - a swap with her twin sister.

It works a treat as all and sundry are hoodwinked. What begins as a mischievous stunt soon backfires, however, as Ellie refuses to go back to being the doormat and leaves Helen impotently raging in her new identity. The harder she tries to convince people of her otherness, "the me-ness of me", the more she is scorned for her delusions, and the injustice goes on to derail her life.

Lies, hers and other people's, permeate the narrative. We are unsure if Helen is ever being candid, given that she finds reality an insuperable problem.

This is not just a blisteringly clever novel about identity it also focuses on the grim hold mental illness can take on sufferers and the challenges they face in an uncaring society.

Indo Review

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