Helen Fitzgerald’s previous novel, The Donor, put the reader in the midst of a beautifully constructed moral dilemma; one that played on a special kind of familial fear, wrapping it all up in the guise of a twisting thriller that kept those pages turning. Now, once more, Fitzgerald returns to confound our expectations with the ultimately devastating new novel, The Cry.
The novel begins at a crowded airport. A mother with a screaming child. When the baby’s with his father, everyone believes him a superman, but people look at the mother with a kind of derision, as though she is somehow responsible for the baby’s wellbeing. A few weeks after, the baby has vanished and suddenly everyone has an opinion on what happened. But only two people know the truth, and they will do almost anything to protect the terrible secret of what really happened to their child.
Fitzgerald forms the novel out of fragmentary moments, alternating between first and third person, building two opposing narratives from equally unreliable narrators. The first perspective - told in the third person - is that of the mother of the missing child, while the second - in a rat-a-tat first person voice - belongs to the ex-wife of the husband, a woman whose world has been messed up by the betrayal she suffered and whose own better instincts battle against her need to believe the other woman capable of such a terrible act as some suggest she might have committed.
At first, it might be easy to wonder where the novel can go after we see directly what happened to the child within the first fifty or so pages, but Fitzgerald’s clever structure and reliably unreliable narrators bamboozle the reader at every turn. She manipulates our sympathies perfectly, revealing onion-skin levels of betrayal and self-deception within each narrative that ultimately lead to unexpected and rather devastating truths.
But as well as the personal and intimate nature of her story, Fitzgerald also allows the reader glimpses of the wider world. Through fragments of social media entries - twitter feeds, blog entries - we see how the wider world has reacted to a story that ultimately everyone believes they own or understand. There are perhaps some subtle parallels to real life instances of stories that have captured the public imagination, and Fitzgerald illuminates how we all have an opinion on personal tragedy we can never fully understand through the fragmented prism of media reporting and social media opinions. But unlike a great deal of other novels, this aspect of the narrative does not feel shoehorned or unnatural. The twitter voices are believably constructed, the use of modern technology never outside the realms of possibility or woefully misunderstood. This is a novel that goes to great pains to remain in the real world, that engages with the society we have become and the way that we react to such stories. That is a huge plus in the novel’s favour, and demonstrates how one can incorporate the now into a narrative nevertheless touches something fundamentally human.
The Cry is a novel that could and should provoke discussion amongst readers; a skillfully constructed moral dilemma combined with a page turning narrative and a voice that never talks down to the reader, but asks them to engage and try to understand what it is they might not be being told directly. Its a noir novel at heart, with characters who spiral down into darkness after making all the wrong decisions. But its also a thoroughly modern novel, and it singles out Fitzgerald as a uniquely talented author whose work deserves to be read by readers unafraid to face the terrifying questions she raises.
Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 21/07/13