Friday 4 February 2022


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She's a Killer by Kirsten McDougall   {Reviewed by STELLA}
Open the covers of Kirsten McDougall’s novel, She’s a Killer, and soak in a shabby Wellington of the near future. Infrastructure is failing, food prices have sky-rocketed, and water is an expensive scarce commodity. Meet Alice, stuck in the same job at enrolments at the university for twenty or so years after giving up on pursuing her psychology studies, badly behaved and bored. Bored because she’s one point off ‘genius’ and her life is crashing in on her. She’s living downstairs from her Antiques Roadshow-obsessed mother who she communicates with by morse code (nice touch), her flat is depressing — there’s a plant growing out of the rotting kitchen bench, her spare room is filled with boxes of unwanted ex-boyfriend stuff, and her view is a rundown running track with rubbish piles at its centre. And, her internal friend ‘Simp’ is back niggling at her with ‘home truths’. The Alice/Simp conversations are fraught and surprisingly entertaining — there’s a constant tussle with this internal monologue, a monologue that sometimes bursts out, verbally, into the rest of the world, turning heads and creating awkward situations for Alice — although, she, Alice, doesn’t seem too bothered by her instability and rather revels in it. When she meets Pablo at the enrolment office — he’s putting in a request for a Russian Literature course — he charms her into a date. Alice is keen on a good dinner, and wouldn’t mind some sex either, with a good looking and intelligent wealthugee. (McDougall may have just coined a new term — a wealthy climate refugee who can buy their way into an accommodating country.) And then comes the twist (this is an eco-thriller): Pablo, surprise, surprise, isn’t who he seems to be, and he has a fifteen-year-old daughter, Erika — a daughter who Alice suddenly finds herself saddled with (but not without excellent financial recompense) for a few days when Pablo has to abruptly leave the country on urgent business. Erika is a point or two smarter than Alice — her IQ is 162 (Alice 159), and an unusual relationship begins to build between the two women. Erika manages to get the flat looking better, arranges installation of rainwater gathering tanks and gets Alice’s mother downstairs for an evening meal. But why? What does Erika really want and what is she up to? Here the plot picks up pace, and the action kicks in. The side stories about Alice, her co-workers, her childhood (and the daughter/mother relationship), her best friend Amy (wife of successful architect and mother to three gifted children), her hedonistic past and her emotional incapacities draw together and gravitate towards the eye of a storm — a storm facilitated by Erika. At times, it seems unbelievable that Alice would venture, and take those closest to her, into a dangerous situation that has no obvious personal advantage. It’s a situation over which she seems to have no or little control, but there is something beguiling about Erika and her cause, especially for a smart, bored woman who sees the inequities but doesn’t necessarily know how to care. Alice may be intellectually gifted, but she's often lacking in emotional intel. Is it Erika’s disdain for the privileged and her ability to act on her beliefs that keeps Alice curious? This eco-thriller set in a not-so-distant and quite believable future Aotearoa, is a cracker of a page-turner, with funny observations of human tropes and snarky behaviour from a not wholly likeable main character. Longlisted for the 2022 Acorn Fiction Prize.

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