Helen FitzGerald’s eleventh novel opens with a killer sentence – not suitable for a family newspaper – that sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is a forensic exploration of a family mired in a modern crisis. When one family member goes off the rails, there are unexpected repercussions for the rest.
Teenager Su, adopted from South Korea as a baby, lives in Scotland with her snarky sister Leah, her musician father Bernard, and her mother Ruth, who is a judge in the Scottish court system.
Leah is only allowed to go on holiday to Magaluf if she takes sensible, hard-working Su with her. Su reluctantly goes along and submits to Leah’s efforts to turn her into a party girl in the hope it will bring them close again. Things don’t go to plan and Su, drunk and possibly drugged, performs a sex act on several young men in a night club.
To make things worse, someone has filmed it and posted it to the web where it goes viral. Leah and her friends go home and Su, humiliated and feeling cast adrift, decides that finding her birth mother is the answer to her problems.
FitzGerald’s depiction of teens on a drink and drugs-fuelled holiday in a notorious party town feels unnervingly close to the mark. The young women display unwarranted levels of trust in men they have only just met, and the unbridled hedonism is alarming.
Most fearsome of all is Ruth, Su and Leah’s mother, who cannot accept that no crime has been committed against her darling girl. She transforms from a respected Lady Sheriff into a vengeful mother determined to make the men involved pay for their actions. She also blames Leah for letting Su down, and her always troubled relationship with her biological daughter sinks to a new low.
The problems that Su’s drunken night cause the rest of her family are skilfully laid out. It is not long before the story hits the newspapers, affecting Ruth’s authority in court, while her usually amiable father becomes stressed and snaps at his wife. Leah, who knows she has treated Su badly over the years, is overwhelmed by guilt.
FitzGerald has a brisk, no nonsense writing style that works well as she takes a scalpel to a seemingly happy family, exposing its fault lines and petty jealousies.
The particular, Su’s disgrace, becomes universal as each member of the family reacts in different ways when put under extreme pressure. Sibling rivalry, enhanced by the two young women being so close in age, is also explored, Su being the archetypal good girl while Leah is a troublemaker. Meanwhile, Ruth has to ask herself if she has given Su more favourable treatment to Leah’s detriment.
This is a fast-paced tale that never goes quite where you expect. Laced with FitzGerald’s trademark black humour, it is by turns funny and sad, scary and bittersweet. Thanks to some subtle foreshadowing, FitzGerald’s denouement is surprising but in keeping with everything that has gone before.
Viral, by Helen FitzGerald. Faber & Faber £12.99