Friday, September 18, 2009

More men who hate women

Not long after making my slightly bemused way through Steig Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire, I read Denise Mina's splendid first novel, Garnethill.  I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to get round to Denise Mina.  I have a horrible feeling it may be because, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had her rather pigeonholed as a woman's writer (not, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there's anything wrong with that. And maybe at that point I should stop digging).

Certainly, there are strands to Mina's writing which might (very unfairly) be characterised as chicklit noir. But by that I mean only that she writes superbly well about young women, their relationships (with each other and with men), and their problems.  But in Mina's writing the problems tend to be more profound than just looking for the new Mr Darcy - sexual and physical abuse, poverty, alcoholism. 

That makes the book sound depressing - and in some ways it is - but what I loved about Mina's writing is the wit and warmth.  She is particularly good at presenting the mutually supporting relationships between her heroine Maureen and her closest friends and her brother.  But there's nothing cosy or sentimental about Mina's world - one of Maureen's closest confidents apparently betrays her, her mother is a manipulative alcoholic, and her other siblings are best loved from a continent away. 

The book explores some of the same territory as Larsson's books - sexual abuse, violence against woman - but their styles are very different.  I was intrigued by a piece by Nick Cohen in last Sunday's Observer, which highlighted Larsson's revolutionary socialist background.  Larsson treats politics, including sexual politics, as a crusade - his approach is worthy and well-intentioned but often feels to me patronising (with the emphasis on the 'patr-') and didactic.  Mina, by contrast, just presents us with life, in all its messiness and confusion.  Like Lisbeth Salander, Maureen is a victim of sexual abuse.  But Maureen isn't a brilliant kick-boxing computer hacker.  She's just a young woman in a dead-end job who drinks too much, has a history of depression, and gets into messy relationships with married men.  She gets things seriously, even fatally, wrong even when she thinks she's being smart.  But she has enough bottle, resilience and street-nous to get to places the police can't. 

Mina's world doesn't divide, on the whole, between good and evil, but between those who are messed up and those who are even more messed up.  Few escape unharmed and many end up harming others, however decent theirintentions.  But the characters and dialogue sparkle, carrying us through the grimmest moments, buoyed up on a tide of wine, whisky and weed. 

There were lots of things I loved about this book.  Not least, whereas most crime fiction gives us police procedure from the police's point of view, here we see things through Maureen's eyes, as the detectives shift from seeing her as a potential suspect, then as an unhelpful witness and, finally, as a resented ally.  The interview scenes are terrific - truculent deadpan dialogue with neither side sure what the other is up to. 

It's not a perfect book - the plot perhaps eventually stretches credulity a notch too far and, for those inclined to such things, it's probably not that difficult to guess who done it.  But those are minor quibbles - what lingers are the characters, the settings and the dialogue.  I can't wait to read more. 

I notice that Mina's recently been in the usual spat with James Kelman about the relative merits of Scottish crime and literary fiction.  Having now read both authors, i know which I'd pick.


1. Maxine said...

Very interesting comparison. I loved the Garnethill trilogy when I read it a few years ago, and highly unusually, kept it as I thought I might want to read it again. I've forgotten all the details now, and your review makes me want to revisit it - not least to see the contrast between Maureen and Lisbeth. When I reviewed Girl With Dragon Tattoo, I noted some similarities between Lisbeth and Rebeckah in Asa Larsson's excellent debut, Sun Storm (US title). Sun Storm is not a thriller as such, but a wonderful book I think, and covers some of these same issues and complex relationships. And an excellent thriller, which is very short, along similar lines to Stieg Larsson is Missing by Karin Altvegen - a really fantastic book and shockingly under-rated in comparision with the first two Stieg Larsson's (esp similar theme in Missing and Girl Who Played with Fire).

2. Michael Walters said...

That's very interesting, Maxine. I've read, and very much enjoyed, 'Sun Storm' (which was called 'The Savage Altar' in the UK) - I hadn't registered the similarities between Rebecka Martinsson and Lisbeth Salander, but you're quite right. I haven't got to 'Missing' yet - it's sitting there on the (very large) to-be-read pile - but your recommendation will no doubt push it much higher up the list, although I suspect now I may be working my way through the rest of the Garnethill books first...

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