James Kelman once stated that real drama is to be found in ordinary people’s everyday lives, and certainly the same could be said about real horror. The supernatural and fantastic may give us a shock or inspire nightmares, but our greatest fear and terror is surely based in reality; the dangers which can be found in the everyday. This is at the heart of Helen FitzGerald’s 2013 novel ‘The Cry’ which asks the reader to consider, not ‘whodunit’, but the much more challenging question of ‘what would I do?’. You may be quite clear in your mind to begin with, but FitzGerald makes you doubt yourself as perceptions are challenged, lies are uncovered, and dysfunctional relationships are exposed.
On a flight from Glasgow to Melbourne, Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson’s 9-month old, Noah, is unable to settle, and his constant crying is not only shredding the nerves of his mother, but also disturbing their fellow passengers, which only adds to the pressure on Joanna. This very public disturbance means that there are plenty of character witnesses available for what unfolds later. As any parents’ worse fears become realised, Joanna will come to understand only too well that judgment comes easily to those with only a few of the facts. However, their judgment is nothing compared on that she pronounces on herself.
‘The Cry’ is a psychological thriller that is genuinely disturbing, partly because it is so believable, and because FitzGerald understands how vulnerable people can be manipulated. She is also aware of how the media works, as shown all too clearly in recent high-profile cases involving children, and while it would be wrong to overplay any similarities with those, the willingness for the media, both mainstream and social, to create and share their own narratives is spot on, something which Joanna eventually uses later in the book to get the reaction that she thinks is just.
Although the horrific situation is ostensibly Joanna and Alistair’s to share, this is not the reality, at least not equally. As she grows more distant from her partner the book becomes two women’s stories, Joanna’s and Alistair’s ex, Alexandra, the wife who left him when she found Joanna and he in bed together. When Alexandra takes their daughter, Chloe, to Australia, it is one of the few times when Alistair is foiled and doesn’t get what he wants, something which gives the reason for the trip even more credence, and a horrible irony.
Although his voice is never directly heard, Alistair Robertson is the one who is pulling the strings of every one else involved for his own gain, and for all the wrong reasons he is one of the most memorable characters of recent times. His final note to Chloe, which uses the same language he has used to seduce and convince both Joanna and Alexandra, is chilling, especially after certain truths have finally been revealed.
What’s perhaps most unsettling about Alistair is how he is routinely forgiven by the women in his life. His mother, his ex-wife, his daughter, and his lover; all of them come to realise that he cheats and lies, often as a matter of routine, but they all make excuses for his behaviour, or at least forgive it, to a greater or lesser degree, and it is only when Joanna decides she can take no more that this pattern is broken in spectacular style.
This month’s music break comes in the shape of a suitably disturbing song from Babybird, which Joanna sings to Noah on the plane while trying to get him to settle. This is ‘You’re Gorgeous’.
Often thrillers build tension and then let it ebb and flow. In ‘The Cry’ FitzGerald creates it in the first chapter, and it doesn’t let up until you close the final page. If you’re like me you’ll read it in one sitting as you can’t put it down until you know how things resolve themselves. There are times when you find yourself literally holding your breath as Joanna tries to make sense of what has happened and tries to work out what is going to happen next.
The idea of the genre ‘domestic noir’ is one that has grown in popularity recently, partly due to the success of ‘Gone Girl’, but the fear of something awful happening to family and friends is eternal and ever present, and ‘The Cry’ would make a rather macabre if moving double bill with Doug Johnstone’s equally excellent novel, ‘Gone Again’. But what I kept returning to is Kelman’s belief in the drama of the everyday, because although a tragic event brings matters to a head, all the characters in ‘The Cry’ are involved in lives which are challenging yet in some ways mundane. Helen FitzGerald proves herself an expert in telling stories which deserve to be heard, and which will strike a chilling chord with all readers.
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Next Month’s Novel: It’s incredibly difficult for any writer to get their debut novel published, never mind get noticed. As a result there are many books which deserve to be read but get overlooked. Iain Maloney’s First Time Solo came out earlier this year, and if you missed it, then I hope next month’s column will encourage you to search it out.
If you are the sort of person who judges a novel by the quotes they use, then one from Art Blakey and another by Aneurin Bevan should encourage you to read on, but this tale of love, jazz and poetry set against the backdrop of the World War II has the perfect balance of the poignant and the uplifting.