Books

Book Review: Flesh of the Peach, Helen McClory

Scottish writer Helen McClory’s debut asks if we can choose our route out of grief

‘Unlikeable woman’ is a charge that is becoming something of a dog whistle in contemporary fiction – a subtle and nasty shorthand for a woman seen as improper or distasteful. Yet Claire Messud, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins and others have seen success with ‘unlikeable’ female narrators. According to the bestseller lists, we love to indulge in their unladylike behaviour.

Her protagonist’s meandering route takes her to unexpected places, and McClory’s adventurous prose does the same with the reader’s mind

Joining their ranks, Helen McClory’s Flesh of the Peach opens with an appropriate dedication: “To all the unlikeable women in fiction and outwith it.” This debut novel doesn’t ask – what makes a woman like this? But instead, what can grief do to us, and do we even notice? Do we realise what we are becoming as we become it? For the main character Sarah, the answer is no.

Having lost her girlfriend in New York (to marriage) and her mother in Cornwall (to death), she takes to the road, heading to her mother’s New Mexico cabin to spend some alone time and consider where her new life might take her. Her meandering route takes her to unexpected places, and McClory’s adventurous prose does the same with the reader’s mind.

It’s wonderful on the sentence level, with observations and descriptions that are just so. Sometimes surprising, other times like you’d already thought of them, there’s a kind of satisfying alchemy at work that makes them slot into your brain and reside there, like you’re better off for having read them. Meanwhile, something more malicious resides within Sarah, whose imaginings on how she’ll spend her vast inheritance do little to quell the darkness inside her. If you’re looking for a Scottish debut with teeth, this is it.

Flesh of the Peach, Helen McClory, is out now, Freight Books, £9.99

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