Women be­hav­ing badly in the High­lands

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mark Aber­nethy

WOMEN’S pop­u­lar fiction can be tricky for a man. Some­one gives you a book, tells you briefly that it’s about an in­tense fe­male friend­ship gone wrong, that one of them has an af­fair with the other’s hus­band and there are envy prob­lems with ba­bies and, well, a bloke is in­wardly groan­ing.

But then I read the first two para­graphs of Dead Lovely by Aus­tralian first- time nov­el­ist He­len FitzGer­ald. I sub­se­quently read this mad and bad, hi­lar­i­ous crime thriller in two sit­tings.

Dead Lovely fol­lows two life­long friends, Krissie and Sarah, who live in Glas­gow. Sarah has a hus­band, Kyle, and their per­fect yup­pie lives have moved to the point where Sarah wants ba­bies. But she doesn’t want ba­bies with the dull, nest­ing in­stincts of fe­male yearn­ing. She wants a baby, she wants it now, and Kyle is dragged from work at all hours to per­form his con­ju­gal chores ac­cord­ing to Sarah’s ther­mome­ter read­ings.

Mean­while, Krissie is hav­ing sex in a night­club toi­let in Tener­ife while high on some drug. And back in Scot­land, where she works as a so­cial worker in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, she finds she’s preg­nant.

The psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure starts to rise as we won­der who will lose it first: Sarah, the ob­sessed and now en­vi­ous wo­man who can’t get preg­nant, or her best friend Krissie, the ac­ci­den­tally sin­gle mother who is gripped by post­na­tal de­pres­sion but not enough to douse her sub­stan­tial sex drive? Kyle is trapped be­tween th­ese time bombs like a mouse stuck with two drool­ing cats.

To get away from it all the three of them go on Scot­land’s West High­land hik­ing trail, where Krissie has an af­fair with Kyle. Thus be­gins a wild ride through the darker as­pects of the fe­male psy­che, a place of mur­der, mad­ness, jeal­ousy, cold rage, hot tem­pers, cruel re­venge and ret­ri­bu­tion via bod­ily func­tions.

It’s a story writ­ten with com­mer­cial con­ven­tions, al­beit with the clever use of shift­ing points of view. But be­neath the crunchy thriller prose is a sub­lim­i­nal track that deals with all the fem­i­nine rage and weird­ness that scares men so much and may even frighten women about them­selves.

The for­mat is part crime novel and part thriller, so I won’t drop any spoil­ers about the back end of the story. But the thing that sets this fast- paced novel apart from other crime fiction is its hu­mour. FitzGer­ald can write laugh- out- loud scenes and she has man­aged to do what Fay Wel­don did in The Life and Loves of a She- Devil , which is to find the joke in what ap­pals us.

I have no doubt this novel will gain a cult fol­low­ing among women while their boyfriends and hus­bands will avoid it: when a man and a wo­man de­cide to re­move their clothes and take their friend­ship to a new level, it would end much bet­ter for ev­ery­one if the wo­man left the carv­ing knife in the kitchen drawer, where it be­longs.

At this year’s Bris­bane Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, FitzGer­ald was brack­eted with crime writ­ers such as Louise Penny. But the crime clas­si­fi­ca­tion isn’t suf­fi­cient for this book. Dead Lovely has lots of gore, but no pathol­o­gists in tiled rooms telling us what hap­pens when a blade hits the carotid artery. It isn’t the inside- out Pa­tri­cia Corn­well for­mat; it’s out­side- in. That is, the crimes and who did them is not the mys­tery, so much as how Krissie and Sarah got to be this way.

Dead Lovely is a crime thriller but its last­ing im­pact is far more in the vein of Wel­don ( Life and Loves , The Heart of the Coun­try ) and Tama Janowitz’s A Cer­tain Age . There’s a jaunty hint of Jilly Cooper, but with saws, body parts and tent pegs as weapons. In the end this is Krissie’s story and through her booz­ing, drugs, promis­cu­ity, crim­i­nal ten­den­cies, bad choices and poor moth­er­hood, it is re­fresh­ing to come across a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist who is not sym­pa­thetic. She’s lik­able, she’s recog­nis­able, she’s hu­man and she’s funny, but if she de­serves sym­pa­thy, we’re not shown why un­til very late in the story.

Most pub­lish­ers of com­mer­cial fe­male fiction won’t touch a novel in which the pro­tag­o­nist is not of­fi­cially sym­pa­thetic. Some­how, FitzGer­ald got away with it and the re­sult is much bet­ter: a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist who’s com­pelling.

Mark Aber­nethy is a Syd­ney writer.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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