By Jay Stringer
I met Helen Fitzgerald on the night Michael Jackson died. That interesting fact has little to do with today’s blog, but it lets you know that we both have an alibi.
I was there for a launch of three books; Alan Guthrie, Tony Black and Helen Fitzgerald all gave readings from their books, answered questions about crime and pets, and generally made good conversation. I’d been aware of Helen’s books, and my curiosity had been piqued by a good review by Ray Banks, but I hadn’t taken the plunge.
After hearing what she had to say, both the Gurrl and I were interested in the dark little hardback that Helen gave a reading from, The Devil's Staircase.
I was laid up with a bad back recently and it gave me a chance to catch up on a few things. I cracked the cover to the book, read the first page, and then several hours later I’d finished. That’s a big deal for me. For a number of reasons, I’m quite a slow reader. I don’t read books in a day, but this one I couldn’t put down.
Trying to place Helen as a writer is as interesting as trying to place her characters. We love setting. I myself have spent many thousands of words online saying how important it is to me for an author and a book to identify with its setting. That can lead to a few misleading ideas though, and it can close a few doors. Helen is from Australia originally but now lives in Scotland. She tends to write stories set in Britain. Gets confusing, eh? No, not really. A writer doesn’t have to be part of the DNA of an area in order to explore it. And for every character who is defined by the hometown that owns them, just as many are defined by the home that they’ve escaped. And that is true of The Devil's Staircase.
The story starts in Australia, with the 18 year old Bronny facing up to being diagnosed with a condition that will destroy her life, or to something maybe even worse; a clear diagnosis that means she has wasted half of her life living in fear. She makes one of those great decisions that only the young can make: she jumps on a plane and travels halfway across the world to have a go at living.
That may sound like I’ve dumped a load of the plot on you right there, but in all honesty I’ve not even scratched the surface. That’s just the pre-title sequence. The real plot of the books is there if you want to look for it: it’s in the title, it’s on the dust jacket. But sometimes you really just need to open a book and jump in, you know?
Once the plot reaches London we meet a full cast of young runaways. Each is running from (or in one case to) something in their past. Each has a story and a motivation, but the book lets you discover them as you go along. There’s no rush to dump these things on you. We see them trying to earn a living, trying to find themselves, and trying to get as drunk and as high as they can. For a while the book is a free and simple exploration of youth and love as each of these runaways come together to form their own community in the midst of one of the world’s busiest cities.
You’re never left far from the main plot though, and just as you’ve settled in to this fun coming of age love story, the book punches you and drags you into it’s dark underbelly, something that has been hiding beneath the surface for the whole story.
The book pulls off something like a magic trick. It has a surface that’s a fun, and funny, story of youth and love. Dig a little deeper and it starts to get very dark indeed. But the trick is that neither of these take away from the real heart of the story. It’s a book that looks at love and loss, at desperation and grief. It deals with real human emotions which, as I’ve written before, is sadly rare in fiction.
I’ll be returning to this theme soon to expand on it, but this is a great example of a book that takes the time to show consequences. If someone dies, then someone is grieving. If someone fails then someone is guilty. There are a few moments late on when we get to see the various different forms of grief or guilt that the characters are dragging around with them. Normally I don’t like it when the narrative decides to tell us what characters are thinking, but if it’s used well it can add just the right note. And this carries over into its twists.
Some storytellers use twists as a way to escape consequences. They can throw in something crazy, or some deus ex machina, to write their way out of a whole. But good twists, good plots, carry the weight of consequences and, sometimes, inevitability. Some twists happen because that’s what needs to happen. This is a book that has a fair few of them, nasty and grisly in turn. Each time you hope that the story will go one way, it reminds you that it needs to go the other. Each time you root for the characters to have a breather, the page turns to remind you that things just don’t work that way.
There are some really good writers working in Britain right now, but the industry doesn’t seem to know how to point them out.
I’ll be interviewing Helen soon. That is, as soon as I get the questions sorted out. In the meantime, pick this up and prepare – I really wasn’t prepared for how good it was.