Violent gangs, murderous bankers and a clever, twisty narrative herald the arrival of Claire McGowan, a new voice in crime
Categorising Claire McGowan's debut novel The Fall isn't an easy thing. Crime? Definitely, although McGowan wasn't sure of that when she wrote it. The narrative jostles along to the timeline of a murder trial, implacably structured. What sort of crime though? Thug-lit? A particularly uncomfortable cosy? London Noir?
All of them sort of fit, none of them fit as perfectly as Charlotte's designer wedding dress. It isn't an easy book to fit into a sub-genre. That's appropriate enough since it isn't an easy book in a lot of ways. Good, but not easy.
The trajectories of spoilt, blonde Charlotte and scrappy, mixed-race Keisha's lives should mean they never cross paths. They might live in geographic proximity in Hampsted, but in socio-economic terms they are worlds apart.
PR maven and bride-to-be Charlotte is rich, indulged and the worst thing that has every happened to her was her mother questioning her choice of chicken for wedding dinner. Brittle, angry Keisha works off-the-books in a nursing home and is desperate to get her daughter Ruby back from social services. Just not desperate enough to give up the reason she lost custody, her dodgy, violent boyfriend.
They have nothing in common. Not until Anthony Johnson ends up dead on the floor of his nightclub, Kingston Town, and his blood ends up on both of their boyfriends.
The police arrest Stockbridge, high as a kite the night in question and reputedly racist, but surely petty criminal Chris Dean, who broke his daughter's arm, is the better suspect? Except the only one who knows he was there is Keisha, and she's loved him since she was 13. Hurting her daughter didn't make her turn on him, what claim can Charlotte make on her loyalties?
The Fall is a twisty, breathless maze of a book. McGowan eschews the unreliable narrator and instead gives us three, more-or-less reliable narrators. Stuttering between heads, the alternating POV chapters are rarely more than three pages long, means there is no time to settle on a side.
Charlotte, of course, believes that Stockbridge is innocent. Before she can convince the reader of that they switch into Hegarty's head, and see why he isn't so sure. It is effectively disorienting story-telling, keeping the reader teetering from coming down on any one side too quickly.
On the other hand, it means that The Fall isn't a book that grabs you quickly. It needs time to soak in, for the character to unfurl and reveal that Charlotte's life isn't such a fairy-tale and that Keisha can only be pushed so far. By page 19 The Fall is intriguing, by page 30 it has its hooks into the reader.
That said, the book isn't without its flaws. McGowan, as a white author writing about an ethnicity not her own, was always going to have to be careful. Occasionally, she isn't. The description of a black preacher having a smile 'wide as a banana' was off-putting. There also seems to be a lack of multi-ethnicity in Charlotte's world, with the middle-classes apparently predominantly white. (Although I have not, admittedly, re-read in search of race markers.)
Yet, race and racism is also dealt with well throughout the narrative. Charlotte prissily chides her mum for calling Keisha 'half-caste', while Stockbridge says calling a woman a 'paki' was everyday workplace hazing, as if that made it somehow acceptable. (Haussmann, the bank where Stockbridge works, is the tertiary villain of the piece.) It was a nice look at how pervasive institutional racism can be, even in people who would otherwise count themselves as liberal.
The Fall is sharply written and nicely observed (the most crushing line in the book is Keisha's matter-of-fact observation 'it had taken her a while not to expect Ruby to come over and hug her like she used to.'). The novel also surprises with moments of humour and precise, incisive commentary.
This is an accomplished debut novel, confidently tackling sensitive issues that other authors might shy from, and McGowan shows a lot of promise as a writer. Hopefully, we will be seeing a lot of her over the next few years. Her second novel has already been commissioned.