The Squeeze

Lesley Glaister

Published by Salt Publishing 15 August 2017

304pp, hardback, £14.94

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hilliard Selka

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Lesley Glaister’s career as a writer is something of a fairy tale. Spotted by Hilary Mantel when attending an Arvon Foundation course in 1989, she won prizes for her debut Honour Thy Father in 1990, and for subsequent books. She counts among her fans the author and critic Julie Myerson, who relishes her ‘clear, truthful novels’.

The Squeeze is her fourteenth work of fiction. It demonstrates once again that she is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, and that when she does, she so often wriggles into the heart of the issue in a way that can make uncomfortable reading but is also superbly revealing – just one of the characteristics admired by her devoted readers, but which has perhaps resulted in her being less broadly known than other contemporary novelists.

‘Squeeze’ is slang for a boyfriend or girlfriend or, when used less kindly, a sexual partner. Here, the term refers to lovers and spouses, but also leads us into the cruel and ugly world of sex for money, specifically human trafficking for sexual exploitation. There is a death from penetration with a foreign object, but mostly The Squeeze is about transactions and trade, its characters bringing individual light and colour to this dark and horrifying universe from which there is rarely any escape.

An episodic narrative opens with brief paragraphs from the point of view of Alis, musing sadly about her mother dying of drink, but quickly we move on to Mats celebrating the pulling down of the Berlin wall in 1989. Mats is married to the exquisite but emotionally distant Nina; they live in Oslo but soon Mats is accepting a job offer in Scotland with the not unpredictable result that he and Nina are divorced. He is affable, longs for children (which Nina wouldn’t entertain) and seems generally a good egg, so it is sad to see him being drawn by loneliness into an after-work culture of boozy bingeing which leads him too-quickly into another marriage, to the unstable Vivienne. She already has one son and gives him another, and Mats is a devoted dad.

Home life is not happy, however, and Mats is taken to a brothel by a mate which is where he meets Marta. She has been trafficked from Romania, from one ghastly existence – handling without proper protection some toxic matter in a chemical factory – to another, servicing men and a fat debt in a back room in Edinburgh. It’s a grim life, but we care enough about Mats and Marta to persist with the tale, though this one is no fairy story.

The Squeeze is not an easy read, not only because of the squalid world where it is set. Glaister’s episodic format has been described as ‘splintered’, a sound adjective for her jagged shards of narrative which jump between past and present settings and tenses. It’s tense and challenging, but we care just enough about Mats and Marta to persist. The ride is a roller-coaster of horror, heroism, violence, love, despair and hoped-for redemption – exhausting, but enriching nonetheless and a journey well worth risking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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