Desperate to enjoy their empty nest, Penny and Andeep downsize to the countryside, to forage, upcycle and fall in love again, only to be joined by their two twenty-something daughters, Asha and Camille. Living on top of each other in a tiny house, with no way to make money, tensions simmer, and as Penny and Andeep focus increasingly on themselves, the girls become isolated, argumentative and violent. When Asha injures Camille, a family therapist is called in, but she shrugs off the escalating violence between the sisters as a classic case of sibling rivalry and the stress of the family move. But this is not sibling rivalry. The sisters are in far too deep for that. This is a murder, just waiting to happen…
Helen Fitzgerald is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the most diverse and flexible writers on the crime fiction scene, and Keep Her Sweet focusing on the implosion of a dysfunctional family in the most extreme way possible, only furthers this reputation…
Take a husband and wife whose relationship is showing significant signs of strain, despite their intention to reconnect when their daughters had left the family nest. As the wife, Penny, drolly says at one point, “She didn’t want to have sex with him, she didn’t want to divorce him either. She wanted to kill him,” and her husband Andeep who is quite frankly one of the most annoying men ever, clinging on to the remnants of his showbiz career, there seems to be enough toxicity and unrest to easily fill the whole of the book. Add into the mix the return of their two twenty-something daughters, Camille and the mentally unsteady Asha, and Fitzgerald has set the scene for the most twisted soap opera ever. Enter one family therapist, with her own difficult daughter, set against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating marriage and extreme sibling rivalry, and the story can only take a violent turn, setting the scene for a very darkly humorous tale that will have you belly laughing and cringing in equal measure.
This has to be Fitzgerald’s most character driven book to date, and yes, her characterisation of this disparate group of people is flawless from start to finish. Like all good fiction, there is so much more mileage in characters that are so deeply unpleasant, that we as readers take on the role of voyeur as this family starts to fall apart at the seams in spectacular fashion. The terminal ending of Penny and Andeep’s marriage is a familiar tale, but seems relatively normal when compared with the toxic hatred escalating under their roof. As seventy-something family therapist, Joy enters the fray, with her own background as complete doormat, constantly bailing out her own daughter for drug related trouble, the signs are there that all will not go well for anyone involved in this.
The intensity of the hatred between Camille and Asha is beautifully rendered, as Asha goes from calm to total banshee wailing madness at the drop of the hat, and the seemingly steady Camille shows us the devil on her shoulder, knowing exactly what buttons to press to exacerbate her sister’s wrath to def-con one million. Camille becomes involved in the farcical affair that Asha has had with a straitlaced man of the cloth, that has led to Asha’s most recent meltdown after she assaulted him with a coffee tamper. She navigates “the happy-clappy weirdo crap” of the pastor and his wife on Asha’s behalf, but also it has to be said for her own sadistic pleasure. On the back of this, a real turning point occurs in their relationship that can only end in violence and retribution. And what violent retribution there is, with all the signs pointing to one sister or the other resorting to extreme violence, “For hours I have been fantasising about killing her; strangling her with my bare hands…stabbing her in the stomach with a much bigger clay tool…so it scrapes bones and squelches organs.” Like a souped up malevolent Brady Bunch, this family lurches from one psychotic episode to another, and that is the complete joy of this book from start to finish.
As someone who actively avoids family sagas because of the chocolate box schmaltz, the overcoming of adversity, family resolution and acceptance, blah, blah, blah, Keep Her Sweet totally represents the kind of family I want to read about. It’s a tale of pretty much unrelenting misery and pain, with a cast of characters who, to be honest, you would ordinarily cross the street to avoid, or, more extreme perhaps, move out of their neighbourhood completely, but it is so, so deliciously blackly funny, with it’s moments of cartoonish violence, and those sharp, spiky observations of human behaviour that Fitzgerald does so beautifully. If you want to take a walk on the dark side, and have a bloody good belly laugh in the process, whilst feeling faintly, just faintly mind you, guilty at what you’re laughing at, this is totally the book for you. I loved it.
Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of ten adult and young adult thrillers, including The Donor (2011) and The Cry (2013), which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and adapted for a major BBC drama. Her 2019 dark-comedy thriller Worst Case Scenario was a Book of the Year in the Literary Review, Herald Scotland, Guardian and Daily Telegraph, shortlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and won the CrimeFest Last Laugh Award. Her latest title Ash Mountain was published in 2020. Helen worked as a criminal justice social worker for over fifteen years. She grew up in Victoria, Australia, and now lives in Glasgow with her husband. Follow Helen on Twitter @FitzHelen.
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)
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