Fly in the Ointment by Anne Fine Bantam Press, 224pp, £16.99 Review by TOM ADAIR
ANNE FINE IS BEST KNOWN FOR her books for children; prize- winning novels fit to engage the minds and concerns not just of young readers, but adults too.
And adults and children lie at the heart of her latest novel for "grown-ups", whose importance belies its skimpy 200-odd pages. It should be read, ingested, discussed, then read again. It raises matters germane to the lives of pretty much everyone. It is subtle, nuanced, beguiling and often shocking. It will smash and grab your attention right from the start. Book groups take note.
Its narrator, Lois, a middle-aged granny, speaks to us from prison. She did the crime, but doesn't feel guilty. "Guilt," she believes, "is in the eye of the beholder." Just like beauty. By the novel's conclusion you feel that Lois believes there may even be beauty in her crime.
It is not a fashionable book, and yet it's a pertinent one. It raises its well-polished mirror up to a tranche of life today so often glossed over by those who would cross to the other side: the neglect of children. The role of parental responsibility. Drugs and dealing on the street. The meaning of family, the gift of love and its many uses and abuses.
The story is Lois's cry from prison, her explanation of what she did. She invites us to read, to ponder our judgment, then decide what we would have done in her place. "In any case, guilt isn't minted fresh," she says. "Each story's triggered by some sort of accident and littered with others all along the way. A chance meeting … a run of bad luck …" Here she is thinking about her conviction as much as her crime. For she, oh so nearly, escaped detection. But the details of that come later.
Right from the off, she is politically incorrect. She pooh-poohs society's moral cowardice in the face of outlandish anti-social behaviour. Mrs Kuperschimdt, her social worker, is kindly but wishy-washy. Misdeeds and crimes are not fittingly punished, thinks Lois. She rationalises, therefore, that sometimes justice must be dispensed by the individual. Lois believes her crime was just; that its end was good though its means were not.
She traces its lineage through Larry, her tiny grandson, the spark of her life, back through Malachy, Larry's father, her only child, born during her marriage to Stuart, her errant husband, from whom she's now divorced. She tracks the roots of her dilemma right back to her own father, and to her mother – she shunned them both, as they shunned her.
Then Stuart grew distant, and Malachy spoiled. And then, when Stuart scarpered, Lois lost Malachy to the lure of a wasted life with his mates on the streets, to drugs and the wiles of Janie Gay Dewell, the eventual mother of little Larry. Janie the junkie, Janie the slattern, Janie the devil undisguised.
Lois, eventually living alone, in her middle age, in a knot of anger at how her life has come to be, decides to end it all – not by dying. No, she plans to disappear. Which is all very well, but then, with the sudden murder of Malachy, and Lois's discovery of the plight of little Larry, everything changes.
The book devotes itself to portraying Lois's subterfuge, worming her way into Larry's life and Janie Gay's trust, becoming in time so indispensable to both of them that she dispenses with what she believes is the "fly in the ointment" without ado. There is no surprise. There is little suspense. But Fine achieves her expected narrative coup de grace with a kind of incremental stealth. Plausibility is strained here and there in the process, but, by and large, the portrait of Lois is utterly gripping, convincing and deep.
And while you long to know more about her parents and Malachy's childhood, this is a beautifully centred novel, unambiguous, and brave. It raises questions about our moral responsibility to act in the face of evil. And, somehow, despite that irresistible narrative voice, it leaves its answers open-ended. Unfussy, and written with verve, it lives beyond its final page.