Women behaving badly in the Highlands
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.