256pp, paperback, £9.99
Reviewed byElsbeth Lindner
‘I’ve had a very long night,’ says Beth towards the end of Vicki Jarrett’s tragic-comic debut, and she’s not wrong. Shootings, beatings, car chases, death by misadventure and penguining* are just some of the events during one very busy evening in Junction Street which, with its comically impotent villains, kindly coppers, bouquet-wielding guys in gorilla suits and fatal scraps of roof tile, bears a passing resemblance to Albert Square in one of those heightened, end-of-the-year specials.
The novel features three central characters who, between them, can tot up a football team’s worth of catastrophe. Beth tops the list – her mother gave birth to her while in a coma and then died, alongside her father, after a car crash; her grandparents, with whom she then lived, were killed in a house fire; and the love of her life perished in another car crash which Beth survived. Now, unsurprisingly, she’s living a life of numb withdrawal while working in a chip shop. Then there’s pole-dancer Amber, and the chap in the monkey suit, George, each of whom has a litany of troubles.
Laugh? Well yes, you do sometimes in this occasionally surreal tale of a drug heist which turns out well for quite a lot of people although not Amber’s boss at the strip club, John, ‘the guy with the sunroof in his head’ owing to an unlucky encounter with a stray chunk of roof slate. Jarrett’s talent for throwaway humour keeps the mawkishness at bay and helps readers swallow the helter skelter pace and not entirely unpredictable conclusions to the three main characters’ predicaments.
Angels feature frequently – neon ones with drugs up their tubes; tattooed ones; sarcastic, feminist ones who appear during George’s near-death experience. The celestial beings lend a theme and a title: Alis Grave Nil (Nothing is heavy for those who have wings).
Jarrett’s novel for all its onslaught of events, isn’t heavy either. Its dialogue is fresh – ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ ‘Small chips and a pickled egg.’ – and its women characters display a feisty, Thelma-and-Louise-ish survivors’ charm. Despite its overload of life-crushing disasters and shorthand assessment of parenting, this is an oddly exuberant and salty book. And that’s even before the chips.
*Let’s just say it involves men with trousers round their ankles.