Blood and guts between the covers


Blood and guts between the covers

DEBORAH STEINMAIR on two books about catastrophic childhoods and the lasting scars that drive people to kill.

THERE are so many books about damaged children, about tortured childhoods filled with uncertainty, fear and abandonment. Perhaps those are the people who become writers; the bruised and wounded. There's the joke of a mother who tells her daughter: if we had known you were going to be a writer, we would have been better parents.

I've read two books that had common elements — one being blood, which is present on both covers.

This novel is set in New Zealand. Justine is 12, her mother has recently died and her father is completely lost. He relies on her — she has to cook and emotionally care for him while he sits and drinks whisky.

There's a new teacher at the school: Mrs Price. She is a widow, having lost her husband and daughter in a car accident. She looks like a Hollywood star and drives a convertible sports car. She's incredibly cool and initially comes across as sympathetic to the children, but it soon becomes clear she is a master manipulator and narcissist. She shamelessly favours certain children and makes them do all sorts of tasks for her after school, even shopping. Justine longs to be Mrs Price's special favourite.

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Then Mrs Price meets Justine's father, who, despite the whisky and self-pity, appears to be an attractive and sought-after man. He forgets his pain and lights up. They start dating and spending time together. Suddenly, Justine is the chosen favourite. Her father and Mrs Price become engaged and plan to get married.

But something is not right. There's a kleptomaniac in the class. Children's coveted belongings disappear, like the pen with a sailing ship that Justine's mother gave her. Everyone suspects her friend, a girl whose parents are of Oriental descent who also obsessively craves Mrs Price's attention.

But a few things start to bother Justine. Mrs Price is clearly addicted to morphine pills and is a fluent liar. Justine becomes her housekeeper (for pocket money) and notices there's a room in her house that's always locked. What secrets lurk behind the door? Meanwhile, it's only a few days before the wedding.

This is not a light novel about growing up and the need to fit in and be cool. It has a dark underbelly; nothing is as it seems. Adults are hugely disappointing and nothing more than selfish bastards.

There's an undertone of aggression and violence that eventually bursts to the surface. The cover shows a pen (with a sailing ship on it) dripping blood from the writing end, after all.

It's irresistible and full of moments of recognition and insight. The southern hemisphere has remarkable writers.

Who, what, where and how much?

Pet by Catherine Chidgey was published by Europa Editions and costs R386 at Exclusive Books.

The second novel is entirely different. It caught me off guard. Perhaps the cover should have been a warning: a hand with blood-red nails holding a hammer. Blood drips from the head of the hammer. And of course, the title.

It's also about a little girl, Claire. Her childhood looks very different from Justine's. Her mother is a heartless and promiscuous sadist. She pits the child against her father, monopolising his attention with her seductive body and charms, insisting on expensive gifts and trips so he has to work day and night and never has time for his daughter.

Early in the book, Claire takes revenge by kicking her mother's lover, a builder, down the stairs then bludgeoning her mother with a hammer to the forehead. When her father comes home, he first cries over his wife's lifeless body (half-naked and draped over the handyman) then comes up with a plan: he wipes Claire's fingerprints off the hammer and places it in the builder's hand. Now it looks like a lover's tiff that ended in murder. He calls the police. Of course, no one questions the child.

Now the heavily damaged Claire has got away with murder, her life looks completely different. She has always been a strange, gifted child who feels she doesn't fit in. As an adult, she mimics emotions and kills left and right: everyone who irritates and bores her.


Yes, it's slightly absurd, but not entirely unbelievable. Moreover, it's unexpectedly hilarious. It's quite a feat to portray murder humorously. It's a strange combination that makes your skin crawl.

Claire feels disdain for anyone and lives by her own standards.

There is character development — towards the end of the book something happens: Claire accidentally makes a friend for the first time in her life. It's the sister of someone she killed. Helen finds her interesting and funny. There's also a man, one of the few “ordinary" people Claire experiences as authentic, who starts calling her regularly and wants to hang out with her.

Suddenly, Claire begins to experience something akin to empathy. Is she losing her grip? She even spares people's lives.

The reader, emotionally invested against their will in the brilliant, uproarious, murderous main character, wonders if she's going to turn her life around. Is there hope for redemption? Can a leopard change its spots?

You'll have to read for yourself.

Who, what, where and how much?

You'd Look Better as a Ghost by Joanna Wallace was published by Viper and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds sing Henry Lee with PJ Harvey.

♦ VWB ♦

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