Author: Denise Mina
Publisher: Bantam Books 
Length: 445 pages
There’s a quote from the book below. It has some curse words in it. I didn’t choose it because of them or to be deliberately controversial but the passage represents best part of what I liked most about the book. If you don’t like curse words don’t read the review (or the book).
Maureen O’Donnell comes home drunk one night and falls into bed. The next morning she discovers the mutilated body of her lover Douglas in the lounge room of her flat. She’s viewed with suspicion by just about everyone including the Police, Douglas’ mother (a member of the European Parliament) and his wife. Even her own mother questions whether she did it or not. As the victim of incest by her own father and having recently spent a stint in a psychiatric hospital Maureen has already experienced some of the worst life can throw at a person. But when she realises that no one else might be looking for the real murderer and suspects that the murderer has it in for some already abused people she takes action.
If I were supreme overlord of the universe (don’t think I haven’t dreamt of it) this is the kind of book that people would think of when they heard the term chick lit. Maureen is funnier than Bridget Jones, has better friends than Carrie Bradshaw and is the kind of practical, non shoe-obsessed woman that fiction needs more of. She is ‘pathologically independent’ (Mina has a way of describing things perfectly yet succinctly), a loyal friend, a helpful though perhaps misguided patient (she makes up stories that she thinks will make her therapist happy) and doesn’t define herself only terms of the bad things that have happened to her. In a nutshell she’s fantastic.
Fortunately Maureen has some helpful if unlikely allies. There’s her drug dealer brother Liam, her best-friend Leslie who volunteers at a women’s shelter and even one of the policemen working her case who all help her out and take risks for her. Just like any chick lit heroine’s mates would. Of course it wouldn’t be a great book if Maureen didn’t also have some crosses to bear including an alcoholic mother and several sisters who think she has a false memory of her father’s abuse of her. All of them though, the goodies and the not, the victims and the heroes are exquisitely depicted in a few of Mina’s evocative lines so that they all became quite clear images in my head while I was reading.
I know that not everyone likes humour in their fiction and also that humour is an elusive quality not easily shared. The humour here is of the dry, sarcastic ‘never let the bastards get you down’ kind that might not be for everyone but allowed me to relate to the characters far more than I would have if they’d been consistently earnest and worthy (as others in their predicaments might have had a yen to be). Plus it made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion.
But the book is not all laughs by any stretch of the imagination. It depicts the systematic abuse of a city’s dispossessed and tackles hefty issues like domestic violence against women far more realistically than is often the case. During a passage in which Leslie and Maureen discuss how to deal with perpetrators of violent crimes against women Leslie gets to the heart of things:
“God Al-fucking-mighty Maureen, have you thought about this at all? It’s all right for you and me to worry about our moral standing – neither of us are getting our faces kicked in every night in the week. These women are treated as if they were born on the end of a boot and we set up committees and worry about our moral standing…We’re not fucking helpless, we’re fucking cowards.”
Having spent more than my fair share of time (which would be none if I scored that job as supreme overloard) in politically correct meetings that do nothing to address the problems they have ostensibly been set up to solve I felt much empathy for Leslie’s position and for the action Maureen takes subsequently. It sure beats talking.
The whodunnit aspect of Garnethill is solved almost as an afterthought, although it is a very satisfactory and quite unexpected resolution, because it’s the characters and their respective journeys through the crap life throws at them that make this book a page turner and a treasure.
My rating 5/5
The good part about discovering an author after they’ve been writing for a while is the certainty of there being more books. There are two more books featuring Maureen O’Donnell (Exile and Resolution) and I shall scatter them both through my reading in the next couple of years and enjoy the anticipation all the while.
This is the third book I have read in a row to receive a 5-star rating which has not happened to me since I started keeping a record of what I was reading about six years ago. I’m not sure what I have done to deserve the reading gods smiling upon me in such a way but I am very, very grateful for the hatrick.