Ginger Nuts of Horror
Before I start this review, here's a warning; the blurb on the back of the book - my copy at least - kind of 'spoils' the story. I'm going to repeat it her, so if you don't want to know, don't go any further; get the novel, read it (without looking at the blurb) and come back here.
This is what it says (my memory ain't great, so I'm kind of paraphrasing...):
'Stevie is a serial killer. When she kills someone, she asks them "What do you see?" She's about to find out.'
Now, you might think, 'hmmm...not much a spoiler, that...' But it's an unfair thing to put on the book because, in my mind, it both builds up an expectation that takes, I think, more than half the book to materialise, and also gives a false impression of what this story is about (I went in expecting a kind of Hannibal Lecter/Dexter type of book - it's not that at all). What it actually is, is the first person account of Stevie (Stephanie, but she prefers Stevie in one of many flips of typical male/female roles) who is, as the book opens, just recovering from the death of her mother, which happened in a car crash where Stevie was driving. The book opens at 'age eighteen' and shows the first of a recurring motif - in which Stevie recounts an event as it should have been, then as it actually was. Thereafter, we are given a fractured and rambling account of Stevie's life, where past sits alongside present in a kaleidoscopic intersecting of seemingly unrelated events.
It's an astonishing book and it's not until about a third of the way through that I realised what was going on (I think). You see, Stevie has 'died' a few times and each time she has, she visits a dark room filled with people she has 'slighted'; these people bite her, scratch her, cause her pain. She develops a slight (ha ha) obsession with this dark room and wants to know if others experience the same thing. This will eventually lead her down that path the blurb on the back alludes to (alludes to? It fucking screams it), but long before that she gets a job in a hospital to bring herself closer to the dying. In between all this, we are treated to memories - real or false or interpreted - of her life growing up; her family, her relationship with her father and the odd and sometimes confusing extended relations. We get the impression that she was a bit of a wild child, sometimes cruel, often struggling with interacting with people and as the book progressed, I came to the impression that I was inside the mind of a schizophrenic, possibly even a psychopath or sociopath. But the disturbing thing is, it took me a while to gather that because there was so much of Stevie that I could relate to - the way she preferred to avoid people, her disdain for them, her paranoia, even her odd, sarcastic sense of humour. There were some real laugh out loud moments for me in this book because Stevie is the kind of person who pretty much says what's on her mind, with no thought of whether it might offend or be appropriate. But there is a point in the story when I looked up and thought that what Stevie was relating might not actually be the truth - only her truth. This was the point I realised what I was reading.
In many ways, it's similar - but oh so wildly different - to Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory. There is that convincing, chummy voice; the black humour; the mild sense of superiority over other people; the disdain for them. Although I haven't read the book, I thought there were superficial similarities to American Psycho too. I mean these comparisons to be in no way detrimental. They are simply to give some frame of reference. Slights, however, is its own beast and though it took me a long time to finish it (and start it - I've had the book since late 2009...), it was more because it was overwhelming me. I found much of it compelling and some of it very disturbing. It affected me emotionally, as the best works should, and it's an astonishing achievement for a first novel. Warrens' prose is beautiful and beguiling, and direct and harsh in the right places - in fact, in many ways, the tone reminded me of films such as The Babadook or Snowtown. There's a dark poetic quality to her writing that feels wholly original and she builds her world like a painter adding splashes of colour to a blank canvas. But it always retains that sense of the abstract, of the ambiguous, even at the end. We can never be quite sure what is real and what is not in Stevie's world, and perhaps the truth lies somewhere in-between. I've read that many find Stevie a very 'unlikeable' character. I didn't find that at all - I found her tragic, deeply sympathetic and existing in a world not of her making and in which she struggled to understand the rules; I fell like that myself sometimes, and I don't think I'm alone.
Regardless, it's an amazing horror novel and deserves to be placed amongst the best of them. My first read of Kaaron's work, but definitely not my last.