Fiction – Kindle edition; Polygon; 224 pages; 2012.
First things first. The Devil’s Staircase by Helen FitzGerald is completely ludicrous. But it’s also entertaining — provided, of course, you suspend belief, try not to analyse the holes in the plot or the rationality (or otherwise) of the characters and don’t mind your fiction being dark and edgy.
Backpacking life in London
It tells the story of Bronny, a likeable but naive 18-year-old Australian, who’s just had a blood test to determine whether she has inherited the genetic disorder that killed her mother. She’s too scared to find out the result, so runs away to London without telling her father or elder sister.
She’s spent most of her teenage years frightened of being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease and has lived her life cautiously:
There was darkness, seeping into me.
I missed out on a lot in those four years:
I never went on the Scenic Railway at Luna Park.
I never kissed a boy in case I began to love him.
I never applied for university.
I never lost my virginity.
I was already dead.
In London she falls in with a group of backpackers and moves into a squat (an abandoned town house off the Bayswater Road) next door to a hostel, finds herself a meaningless job handing out towels in a gym and goes on an unabashed mission to lose her virginity. She makes new friends, goes sight-seeing, starts taking drugs and generally learns to loosen up a little. It’s all very far removed from her life in rural Australia living at home with her nice dad and her high achieving sister.
But there’s a dark element to the storyline, which comes as a bit of a shock when it’s revealed more than a third of the way through: there’s a woman hidden away in the basement of the squat. She’s gagged and bound to a chair. She’s been kidnapped by a depraved young man, who uses her for sexual gratification, and there doesn’t seem to be any way out of her predicament.
FitzGerald interleaves these two narrative threads — Bronny’s new hedonistic life in London (told in the first person) with the terrified woman in the basement (told in the third person) — to build up a sense of mounting tension: when will Bronny realise there’s someone stuck in the cellar below her room and do something about it?
The story is, of course, bonkers and far-fetched. It’s fast-paced though and I ripped through it in about three sittings. But it does make for uncomfortable reading, because in typical FitzGerald style she never shies away from writing about the questionable morality of ordinary people and doesn’t seem to mind if her fiction is exploitative. (She’s worked for the Scottish probation and parole service for more than a decade, so I suspect she’s seen it all.)
While it’s essentially a psychological thriller with a dark, noirish bent, The Devil’s Staircase does throw up some pertinent issues. For instance, is it ethical to be tested for a genetic disorder when you’re a teenager and how do you live with the results when they are disclosed? Does living your life mean doing things that may risk it? What can we do to stop depravity in seemingly ordinary people? How does losing a parent at a young age affect the rest your life?
This is a genuinely dark and edgy read, with great characterisation and superb pacing, but I question the exploitative nature of some of the basement scenes. Still, as a form of escapism, it’s difficult to beat and makes me relieved that my early days as a backpacker in London were nothing like this!
This is my 8th book for #AWW2017 and my 5th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it online in August 2015 for the princely sum of 99p. I’ve read several of Fitzgerald’s novels, so knew it would be an entertaining read.