Okay, so there’s been a wee bit of a furore regarding the opening line of this book, and Fitzgerald’s use of a c-word- no, not that one- but one which seems to have caused a bit of consternation. Personally speaking there are far worse c-words- Cameron, chlamydia, cystitis- which are all singularly unpleasant in their own way, so I was completely undeterred by her shock opener. It’s called freedom of expression. Also despite my general loathing/apathy to the current trend of domestic noir thrillers, I suppose in a way that this book does draw on certain motifs from this genre, but thanks to the acerbic and beautifully twisted nature of Fitzgerald’s writing Viral felt like a real trip to the dark side of domestic relationships…
The story centres on the implosion of a family due to an event filled trip to Magaluf undertaken by British teenager Leah and her adopted Korean sister Su, who are like chalk and cheese in terms of character and behaviour. Rebellious Leah is wildly impulsive, set against the swottish and demure Su, but one ill-fated night in Magaluf and the pernicious world of social media, sees the corruption of goody two shoes Su, and the far-reaching effect of her actions causing a meltdown in her family. To escape the fallout of that fateful night, Su embarks on a voyage of discovery about herself and her roots in Korea, whilst causing her adoptive mother, high court judge Ruth, to embark on her own journey of retribution against those responsible for Su’s trials and tribulations.
Although, I confess I wasn’t entirely convinced by the arc of the story, and the way the plot played out, what I did enjoy was the way that Fitzgerald really got beneath the skin of her main protagonists, and exposed with such precision their failings. This detached style of holding her characters up to scrutiny and judgement is a recurring theme in her books, and hence why I like reading them so much. When put under the microscope, her characters demonstrate the worst aspects of human nature, despite our initial impressions of them, and are neither all good, or all bad. I also like the way that Fitzgerald dispels our perceptions of her characters as the book progresses, so we are forced to reassess our opinions of them and the way they behave. The dominant character of Ruth in particular takes on the mantle of an avenging angel, and whilst her actions could be applauded as demonstrating a mother’s need to protect her child, they do come at some cost to herself and her daughters, on her one-woman mission for justice. Equally, Leah’s initial selfishness and abhorrent behaviour is roundly turned in on itself, and the somewhat nauseating goodness of Su begins to deteriorate into out of character solipsism as the book progresses, after her awful experience in Spain, and the interesting exploration of her true self. I also enjoyed the way that Fitzgerald used the three main locations- Britain, Spain and Korea- as a springboard for the changes in character her protagonists undergo, and showing how even the relative safety and security of home can be deceptive in the aftermath of a crisis. Of course, reflecting the title the book has much to say on the pervasive nature and reach of social media, and it’s destructive effects after one young girl’s coercion into a moment of madness that cannot be easily escaped. Any salacious or harmful information has the potential to be put up for public consumption, but what if it happened to you? Unsettling indeed.
Spiky, uncompromising and engaging. Domestic noir that packs a proper punch.
(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)