Anyway, let's move on. I was recently made aware of a debut novella by a writer who has had some success in the short story/anthology arena. This novella is published through PS Publishing, which immediately pricked up my interest as they are renowned for releasing quality products, both with the stories/writers and the actual books. And My Name Is Mary Sutherland by Kate Farrell is no exception...
Told from the first person perspective of the titular character, the novella recounts the life of seventeen year old Mary, who is currently being held in a secure mental facility in Norwich, Norfolk. The reasons for her being there take the length of the book to reveal and it's all done in such a convincing and entertaining way. Essentially being interviewed by a local news crew - whose brief appearance frame both ends of the book - we are given an insight into the slightly strange, and socially awkward Mary, who counts her parents as her best friends when she was younger. Almost the stereotypical 'outcast' girl - with frizzy, unmanageable hair, a slight weight problem and glasses that fog up all too often - Mary is also apart from the other children; she has no close friends, she has a dark sense of humour and she is disdainful of those to whom fashion and appearance is all. So, in that, she is pretty normal. But her life is soon to be filled with tragedy, as her mother first takes ill, then sadly passes away. This leaves Mary's father free to marry his much younger, much more attractive (in a shallow, physical way) secretary, who takes on the role of wicked stepmother to Mary; acting dismissively towards her, treating her like vermin and driving a bigger and bigger wedge between Mary and her father...
Essentially taking the template of one of those fairy tales featuring the wicked stepmother and the young girl who suffers at her hands - albeit with lots of back-story of Mary's young life - Kate Farrell weaves a darkly humorous, psychological tale of someone who is a victim of other people's unthinking and often cruel ways. Unfortunately - for those around Mary - this has an altogether not happy ending for them; almost a case of, 'reap what you sow'. Told with verve, confidence and a wonderful eye for both detail and prose, Kate has written something truly worthy here, a narrative which flips back and forth between her short life up to the point of incarceration, and the efforts of the psychiatric hospital to get her to open up about herself; we are also given enigmatic hints as to why Mary is in this place. Though it isn't a comedy, I did find myself laughing out loud a couple of times; often at inappropriate moments. In many ways, the tone and humour reminded me of Roald Dahl at his most black. I was also put in mind of such books as The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, and Slights by Kaaron Warren. Though not derivative at all, it does share similar DNA with those excellent works. Ultimately though, it's its own beast, and is a very readable one at that. The text is peppered with word-play, Mary's recollections of various sayings uttered by old family members which take on deeper resonance in the context of hinted at events, and a slow, inexorable crawl towards an inevitably dark finale. Though I had a fair inkling of what was to come, it still managed to shock, not least because of the matter of fact way it's presented. I also love the way that Kate didn't spoon-feed the story; many events and occurrences are obscured by Mary's seeming inability to understand, and it's left to the reader to wonder if her apparent innocence is genuine or not. There are also moments of quiet emotion, which led me to a deeper connection with Mary; I felt her isolation, her frustration and sadness at being ostracised simply for not conforming to social standards. And her genuine grief and confusion at the loss of her mother is both subtle and heartbreaking at times.
If you're the sort of reader who needs to 'sympathise/empathise with the characters', or 'like them' in order to enjoy a book (and I find that a silly notion to be honest, but what the hey), you probably won't get on with this. Similarly, if you need constant action in a story, be warned; this book is the epitome of a slow burn but is all the more delicious for that, and I found myself devouring the pages (metaphorically speaking). I, personally, loved the way Mary is depicted - alternating between being a tragic, sympathetic figure to showing hints of calculation and malice. If you like darkly sardonic tales of dysfunctional and slightly unpleasant people, and aren't afraid to confront disturbing and upsetting subject matter, this might well be a book for you.
A very well-written and darkly affecting story, with a genuinely powerful, distinctive and consistent voice. I will be very interested to see what Kate Farrell comes up with next.
PAUL M. FEENEY
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