Kiare Ladner

Published by Picador 18 February 2021

256pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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Bored office-worker Meggie Groenewald is 23, living in London and studying part-time for an English degree. Born and raised in South Africa, she lost her father when she was a baby and grew up as the overshadowed daughter of an undermining mother.  When she meets her new colleague, Sabine, her life changes direction. Mixed-race Sabine, also 23, is everything Meggie would like to be: cool, confident, impulsive, mysterious.  Meggie is transfixed.

When Sabine moves to a nightshift job, putting together potted summaries of crime reports, Meggie contrives to join her.  In their seedy new night-time world, she meets co-workers Earl, Lizard, Sherry and Prawn, with whom she soon shares booze-  and drug-fuelled sessions after being up all night.  Sometimes Sabine joins them.  Meggie has a boyfriend, Graham, but can’t commit to moving in with him.  Instead, she travels deeper into the night world, exploring her sexuality in an all-women bar and getting off with strangers.  There is chemistry with Sabine, but it is confusing.

After one particularly heavy bender, Meggie invites Sabine over to Graham’s flat.  They go on a wild bohemian spending spree, after which Sabine leaves abruptly to accompany a hitherto-unsuspected rich (male) lover to the Far East.  Thereafter, Meggie is unsure of the sexual attraction between them; she becomes more and more promiscuous, suffering violently when Sabine is unobtainable.

Part-way through the story, we understand that the narrator is looking back after twenty years.  After a long, slow crawl to self-respect, Meggie has become what she always dreamed of being: a writer.  She has had her own descent into hell (culminating in a gang-rape), but it is elegant, romantic Sabine who ends up destroyed.

This portrait of friendship between a tantalizing but doomed young woman and her hooked admirer has a slightly creepy undertone reminiscent of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and very well sustained suspense, so that the reader is never quite sure what either woman will do next. What it was to be young in London in the last months of the twentieth century is brought to life with a relish worthy of early Angela Carter. Above all, with an honesty not unlike Elena Ferrante’s in her searing novel, Days of Abandonment, Kiare Ladner recounts with absolute accuracy the lengths and depths to which some women will go in order to free themselves from whatever it is that binds them.  This is a debut to be cherished.

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