Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Review of Sweetpea by C.J. Skuse (2017, HQ)

Rhiannon Lewis is 27 and living her life as an act. As a child she survived a mass killing and became something of a celebrity. As an adult she works at a local newspaper, dates Craig, a builder who is cheating on her, and hangs around with her bitchy friends from school. While she plays nice, she’d like to kill them all. In fact, she’d like to kill everyone who annoys her. And she likes to kill. After a three year hiatus, she murders a would-be rapist. A few weeks later she kills another. Nobody suspects the violent deaths could be performed by a woman, which emboldens her further. The local paper calls the killer, ‘The Reaper’, but she calls herself ‘Sweetpea’.

Sweetpea is a fresh-take on the serial killer genre. A macabre, black comedy that is styled as Bridget Jones meets Hannibal Lecter. Rhiannon Lewis keeps a diary. Each day she lists all the people she would like to kill and how her day unfolds. She charts the progress of her Act – the charades she plays out to persuade people that she’s a normal, 27 year old woman – and her real thoughts, which are a tirade of sarcastic, funny and hateful observations and actions. On wandering home from a night out she kills a would-be rapist. She hasn’t killed for three years, but the event re-ignites her passion for extinguishing lives, especially those that abuse women and children. So starts a murderous spree. Initially I was taken with the voice and style, which is over-the-top bawdy, alternative, dark, and challenges political correctness (think Men Behaving Badly, Bottom, Black Books), and made me laugh out loud several times. Rhiannon is an interesting character, consciously playing a role while living a double life. She’s pitched somewhat as an anti-heroine, fighting sex offenders. The problem for me is that she’s actually just a killer with a very wonky moral compass and as the book progressed the humour, her story, her friends and work colleagues became increasingly tedious, despite there still being some laugh-out loud moments. The narrative simply felt too stretched out, with the story not really progressing much for a couple of hundred pages, and the ending was somewhat anti-climactic, ending mid-denouement (obviously to try and pull the reader to the next instalment – I don’t mind ambiguous endings, but just stopping mid-scene is annoying). By this stage, it was clear that Rhiannon had little heroine qualities; and in some ways that was the most interesting thing as a reader – the way that Skuse uses black comedy to try and create a bond between reader and a psychopathic woman. And it kind of works for a while, but then ran out of steam.


Mack said...

Good review, Rob. I don't see the "Bridget Jomes meets American Psycho" connection myself; Rhiannon is much more like Dexter Morgan. My enjoyment of the book lasted through to the end though I can see what would make you think it carried on too long.

The sequel, In Bloom, picks up exactly where Sweetpea ends. While I also enjoyed this book all the way to the end, it was a bit of a strain at times and I found myself thinking that it was time to wrap it up.

Rob Kitchin said...

Mack, she tortures a woman over a couple of months who slighted her when they were 11 and she kills at least two people who had committed no crime. That's not vigilante stuff, that's straight murder.