Book review: Viral by Helen FitzGerald

Helen FitzGerald
Helen FitzGerald
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Sun, sea and sex tapes as siblings spin out of control in Helen FitzGerald’s new novel, Viral

Viral by Helen FitzGerald | Faber, £12.99

‘SO FAR twenty-three thousand and ninety-six people have seen me...my mother, my father...my sixth-year biology teacher.”

What would you do if a badly filmed sex tape of you was anonymously posted online? In her 11th novel, Glasgow-based author Helen FitzGerald takes a stark look at the repercussions of exactly that.

We live in a society that is continually switched on, and yes of course the internet can be a force for good, but Viral explores the darker side of this online world – sensationalism, exploitation and the personal crises that can ensue when intimate or embarrassing moments from people’s lives suddenly become public property.

The victim in Viral is smart and sensible 18-year-old Su, forced by her mother Ruth to chaperone her angsty and irresponsible sister Leah on a holiday to Magaluf.

Leah’s efforts to turn her level-headed sibling into a fun-loving party girl as a means of mending their broken relationship spin out of control and soon a degrading video surfaces online that is viewed not only by Su’s friends and family, but also by countless strangers.

The narrative focus alternates between Su and her mother Ruth. When we first meet the former she has already viewed the video online, and over the course of the book, overcome with guilt and shame, she begins to remember more details about the drug-fuelled night in question and the events leading up to the moment the video was made.

Fiercely protective Ruth, meanwhile, is still in Scotland, trying to maintain her role as a respected sheriff while at the same time processing what has happened to her daughter, both as a mother and legal expert.

The emotional fallout from the posting of the video is used very cleverly by Fitzgerald as a vehicle with which to explore the boundaries of familial relationships, and in particular to probe the historical tensions between Su, Leah and Ruth. The events in Magaluf force the three characters to embark on a journey of self discovery, ultimately arriving at a point of mutual acceptance of each other’s vulnerabilities and failings.

This is a real psychological roller-coaster, dealing with themes of victimisation and vengeance with great subtlety and tenacity. It is enhanced, too, by some pleasingly gritty, choppy dialogue and smatterings of FitzGerald’s signature dark humour, making it highly readable, as well as being an important morality tale for the internet age.