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The Killing Jar

7 March 07 words: James Walker
Nicola Monaghan has produced an utterly compelling and depressing narrative of life on a council estate in one of Nottingham's worst boroughs

I have read two books which have made me feel really uneasy. The first was American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, the second was Ripper by Michael Slade. To this list I can now add The Killing Jar.

The fact that a book is able to induce such a reaction should not be deemed as negative but rather as testament to the power of the prose to achieve a believable verisimilitude. American Psycho and Ripper unnerved me because of the gratuitous descriptions of violence. The Killing Jar, although containing its fair share of this, invoked the same uneasy feeling because of the absolute waste of lives. Having grown up right on the border of Beechdale road where this book takes place, the story had particular resonance for me. I know these people, I’ve walked (and occasionally ran from) these streets and returning to them through fiction has left me feeling just as uneasy as when I lived there.

Nicola Monaghan has produced an utterly compelling and depressing narrative of life on a council estate in one of Nottingham’s worst boroughs. This is an alternative, truer and bleaker version of the same kind of chaotic lifestyles glamorised by Paul Abbott’s Shameless. It has all the elements which underpin the underclass thesis; drugs, abuse, broken families, violence, fatalism, poor education and housing. The underclass thesis, which most recently has found voice in the Chav stereotype, is argued to be the product of either agency or structural causes. Monaghan presents both sides of the argument through the eyes of Kerrie-Ann.

Kerrie-Ann is the daughter of a smack addicted prostitute, sent to peddle drugs outside her school by one of her mother’s numerous ‘uncles’. Structurally her future is already mapped out for her in those formative years. There seems to be little hope of escape. Monaghan never over plays this and captures the situation perfectly through a series of innocent childlike observations, such as when she asks if her half caste brother is this colour because her mam shot ‘brown’ (heroin) whilst pregnant. Similarly, descriptions of her carefully consuming an ice-cream so that the crumbs drop back onto it presents the picture of a child who recognises such treats are a rarity.

The Killing Jar is a reference to the device used by Kerrie-Ann’s neighbour, entomologist Mrs. Ivanovich, to preserve butterflies in toxic liquid. It is also a metaphor for the estate she lives on and the characters who are entrapped there predominantly through drugs, a self indulgent and just as effective toxic to their hopes of development. Whether she has the necessary agency to escape her situation is the only hope afforded the reader and is motivation to keep you eagerly turning the page.

Kerrie-Ann will cause much consternation among readers. On one level she is truly detestable, creating her own misery. On the other she is relatively innocent, manipulated by those around her and a victim of circumstance. This indifference works well, offering the kind of complexity required to understand such situations and is a refreshing change to more formulaic narratives which tend to simplify the world into binary opposites of good and evil.

The book is written in that lovely flat Nottingham dialect and is an inspiring debut. Indeed, I felt sad finishing it and wanted to know what had happened to various characters. It would be interesting to find out how Kerrie-Ann would cope in an alternate environment living in circumstances she has created for herself, something alluded to towards the end of the book - but you will have to read it to find out.

Monaghan grew up in Kerrie Anne’s world and returned to her home town to pen the novel after a successful career in finance which took her to New York, Paris and Chicago. The book was written during Nicola’s MA at Nottingham Trent under the guidance of David Belbin, who praised Nicola in a recent interview here at Leftlion. Rather interestingly, the dust jacket to the novel contains a very respectable picture of the author with all her hair, which is in stark contrast to the skinhead she fronted recently, perhaps hoping to create a little artistic distance between fact and fiction? It is a question which LeftLion hopes to ask Nicola in a future interview and for the record, we think she looks gorgeous, scary and intriguing. Exactly like her book, innit.

Vital Statistics
p: 284
Chatto & Windus 2006

The Killing Jar website
James Walker's website

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