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Books

Worst Case Scenario, Helen FitzGerald; Animals Eat Each Other, Elle Nash

Helen FitzGerald’s novel about a menopausal probation officer with a tangled mess of a life captivates Doug Johnstone

I do love a novel that truthfully depicts a woman on the edge of things, so it’s terrific to have two such books to discuss this week. These are books that are funny, disturbing, shocking and thoroughly entertaining, and which revolve around fully rounded female characters fucking up in the world and struggling to come to terms with their lives.

First up we have the outrageous and crazy Worst Case Scenario by Helen FitzGerald. FitzGerald is originally from Australia but now lives in Scotland, and I’ve long been a fan of her work, a backlist of novels that sit on the outer edges of the crime genre, which tackle difficult topics with full-on gusto and consumate writerly skill. Her most famous book, The Cry, was recently turned into a major BBC drama series, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happens to Worst Case Scenario.

The plotting is intricate and beautifully handled, and the narrative pace is absolutely breakneck,

The book focuses on Mary Shields, a middle-aged probation officer in Glasgow, who has to deal with the worst offenders that the criminal justice system can throw at her. She’s suffering symptoms of the menopause and going a little nuts, frustrated by bureaucracy at work and constantly faced with the terrible things her clients have done. Mary starts to become obsessed with Liam, imprisoned for murdering his wife and now released into her care, and also somehow famous as a representative of men’s rights activists after publishing a series of letters to his dead wife.

Things become even more complicated when Mary’s son develops a relationship with Liam’s daughter, and the press hounding Liam and subsequently Mary adds a further level of pressure on her already burdened shoulders.

The plotting is intricate and beautifully handled, and the narrative pace is absolutely breakneck, the reader feeling like they’re hurtling through Mary’s mad life right along with her.

And that voice of Mary is the absolute crowning glory of Worst Case Scenario. Mary is deeply flawed but all the more compelling for that. She is unhinged and uncontained by the conventions of normal society, and her menopausal raging at the stupidity of the world is an absolute wonder to behold. She is a glorious hot mess and she is absolutely compelling company from start to finish in this wonderful, energetic, hard-hitting and deeply funny novel.

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And a strong narrative voice is just as apparent in our second book this week, Animals Eat Each Otherby American author Elle Nash. This is Nash’s first novel, and it deals with an erotically charged relationship between an initially unnamed narrator and another couple. Matt is a tattoo artist and Satanist, while his girlfriend Frankie is a new mother, and the narrator, who the couple eventually name Lilith, becomes embroiled in an unconventional sexual relationship with them, one that is emotionally questionable and very complex.

Strands of emotional confusion and self-loathing run through,

Lilith sways between obsession and jealousy with both Matt and Frankie, and the line between pleasure and pain becomes very blurred as her longing to find a place where she belongs begins to overpower her.

Strands of emotional confusion and self-loathing run through Animals Eat Each Other, and Nash writes brilliantly and viscerally about the connections between physical and emotional intimacy. There is a superbly tactile flow to her beautiful, stripped-down prose that absolutely sucks the reader in, making this a disturbing and deeply moving piece of modern storytelling. Brilliant stuff.

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