Thursday 29 April 2010

The Devil's Staircase by Helen Fitzgerald

The Devil’s Staircase by Helen Fitzgerald
One Man’s Opinion

Helen Fitzgerald must have been one hell of a social worker. As a probation and parole officer she most likely needed to apply levels of patience and understanding that most of us would struggle to find.

You sense this in the way she creates her characters, from the main players to the bit parts. It’s as if she is able to empathise with each and every one of them. She understands that people react differently to situations, that patterns of thinking vary from one individual to the next and that the human condition is to live somewhere under the shady parasol of death.

I first encountered the work of Fitzgerald earlier in the year when booking a place on an evening hosted by her at ‘Crime In The City’, part of a series set up by Edinburgh libraries.

I got hold of a copy of ‘Bloody Women’ to give me some pointers as to what to expect. It turned out to be a real gem. A genuine page-turner. It’s highly recommended.

The event was almost hijacked by a bunch of kids who were getting excited about something in the background. Even so, Fitzgerald wasn’t deterred and she entertained the crowd delightfully with her reading, her tales and her answers to questions.

Thoroughly satisfied by the evening, I bought a copy of ‘The Devil’s Staircase’ which I finished tonight after a couple of days of reading pleasure.

On the back it remarks: ‘Not for the faint-hearted’ (certainly), ‘is funny’ (definitely), ‘sexy’ (oh yes), and disturbing’ (I’m with you there).

Bronny, an Australian teenager, has witnessed the demise of her mother who has a genetic condition. When her sister is given a clean bill of health at the age of 18, the odds of Bronny having the condition seem to shorten.

Reflecting upon the things she missed out on in the years preceding her own blood test, Bronny explains:

"I never went on the Scenic Railway in Luna Park.
I never kissed a boy in case I began to love him.
I never applied to university.
I never lost my virginity.
I was already dead."

The prospect of being doomed to a life dominated by a ticking bomb is too much for her to bear. Deciding not to collect her results she does a runner. Takes a plane to Britain. Joins a group of backpackers in London and sets herself the goal of losing her virginity.

It’s the sexual quest that has us wrapped in the early stages. Indulging in drink and drugs she lets her hair down, feels chemically induced love for her new friends and a comradeship forged by a common situation and regular smokes on a bong.

She’s the kind of girl I wish I’d met when I was 18. Bright and beautiful, sweet and sincere, fun and tinged with melancholy. I reckon we’d have had a really good time getting to know each other. My imagination was rampant.

When the gang break into the building next to their hostel to set up a squat, the merry-go-round accelerates and the intensity of life is heightened.

Bronny hears strange sounds in the basement, but she’s the only one that picks up on them. She decides she’s taken too many turns at the bong and is losing her mind. That she’s been hearing things.

Perfectly judged as a time for change, in kicked part 2.

It turns out Bronny should have trusted her instincts.
Beneath her a woman (Celia) is trapped, snatched from the street by a man who needs a little something extra to get it up.

It’s this section in which we find out about the victim of the kidnapping and the rape, told in her own words. Her condition is harrowing. Celia goes into detail about her pain, her emotional torment, bondage, attempts at escape and disgust and her captor’s sexual acts. It’s hard hitting, smelly, violent and vivid. I was unsettled to say the least, which is not something that often happens to me when reading.

This short section, full of grittiness and violence, altered the novel’s drive. In Bloody Women the structure is cleverly put together, flitting between narrators and time with ease like a tightly fitting jigsaw. I might have liked the same to have happened here and witnessed the torture of Celia unfold along with the rest of the story. As one chunk it reads well and I remained engaged, but I wonder how it might have come across with a different approach.

From then the plot speeds up and never stops racing. You just know you’re heading for a high speed derailment.

Bronny becomes entangled with men, Celia’s family, miserable colleagues and a wonderfully painted detective Vera Oh (I’d like to see more of her in the future).

The depiction of Celia’s husband and sons coping with their loss is handled with the deft craft of a talented writer.

How’s this for a response from her son after Bronny persuades him to send an email to his missing mum?

Subject: No subject
Dear Mummy,
Why did you leave? You are a witch fuck. I hate you
and it’s all your fault.
I miss you.

It’s a lovely illustration of contradicting feelings and helps to sum up Fitzgerald’s ability to depict situations and people by considering all their facets.

There’s a real flow to her ideas. The way it’s written means that nothing gets in the way. She has a gentle style which lulls you into a false sense of security, then she gives you a swipe you should have been expecting but were too distracted too look out for. Imagine a teddy bear wrapped up in barbed wire or a Kinder Egg containing an electric chair.

What, then, can you expect to find in a novel by Helen Fitzgerald?

You’ll encounter warmth and humour. There’ll be a lightness of touch and sensitivity that allows for the drawing of characters shaded in with all the colours of the spectrum. There’ll be pitch darkness. You’ll encounter acts of violence that you’re unlikely to have ever considered - The Devil’s staircase had me crossing my legs on more than one occasion. It’ll be a roller-coaster ride that you don’t want to let go of until you reach the end. When you reach the end, you’ll go straight to the back of the queue to get right back on again.

You can’t ask for much more than that in one book now, can you?

1 comment:

  1. Nige
    I have absolutely no desire to read this book. I'm far too squeamish!
    However, your review kept me engaged from start to finish.
    'You can’t ask for much more than that in one [book] review now, can you?'
    Happy weekend.