The UK-based The Guardian newspaper organises an annual Not The Booker Prize literary competition and it has just published the Shortlist of six books based on Guardian readers’ voting. This book topped the list so I bought it (via Amazon, I’m afraid) together with the second on the list - which I guess will be reviewed here in due course.
It’s an interesting book with many strengths. There is a strong narrative line which generally held my attention. But towards the end I felt a jump forward in the chronology was awkwardly handled. When I first read pages 220 – 221 I thought they might be in the wrong place or that “Almost four years on…” (p 221) might be an uncorrected slip. If I count as a reasonably attentive reader, that really shouldn’t happen.
There is also an awkwardly handled story of betrayal, the importance of which you can I think easily miss. The narrator, Fiona, “outs” a student sex worker, Anya/Sonja in a fit of anger or sexual jealousy and then in a disconnected passage interprets her own subsequent behaviour as an attempt at reparation. This is an important part of the narrative and it doesn’t come through as strongly as it should.
The strong, central narrative is single parent Fiona’s search for her long-time missing sister Rona / Tasha who she discovers had been working as an escort at the time of her disappearance which followed immediately on from handing over custody to Fiona of her baby daughter.
As Fiona introduces herself to sex workers in her search for Rona, she brings into consciousness her own frustrations with her job and with parenting. She also becomes more aware of her sexuality and desires which are hard to be open about. By the end of the book, she has become a sex worker herself, with a higher standard of living and greater contentment in her role as parent.
In between, there is a lot of very empathetic writing about the lives of sex workers and a fairly obvious contempt for those who would “save” them by criminalising those who pay for sex (men - who on this issue are fair game for uninhibited sexist stereotyping by advocates of the "Nordic Model"). The contempt probably gets in the way of giving a rounded portrayal of the saviours – Innes has a character, Claire, who is very cardboard even though Innes devotes quite a lot of space trying to understand her and humanise her. But maybe these people are cardboard - in another context recently I read an essay by "Nordic Model" Mary Honeyball which would support that thought.
The book is at its best in its assertiveness about female sexuality in the face of the Save Women from Prostitution denial of female sexuality. And, perhaps even more so, it is very strong in its probing into what it might mean to live a good or fulfilling life if you, like very many people, don’t have a lot of money, do have a child to care for, and don’t want to live like a doormat.