Book review: What Doesn’t Kill Us, by Ajay Close

Ajay Close’s novel may draw on the real-life hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, but her characters – flawed, funny and deeply engaging – have lives that are very much their own, writes Susan Mansfield

West Yorkshire, the fag end of the 1970s. A serial killer is murdering women, and police seem unable to do anything about it. Every woman is fearful, every man a suspect, but the reactions to the deaths are also exposing a deeply misogynistic society and a small group of radicalised women is starting to fight back.

Ajay Close’s novel draws on true events: the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper and a feminist arson campaign waged against porn shops in Leeds. Though the book is the product of extensive research (her bibliography is included at the back) her fictional characters wear it lightly, the world through which they move simply feels entirely real.

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Liz Seeley is an ordinary WPC on the fringes of the manhunt for the “Yorkshire Butcher”. Early in the book, she leaves her violent partner to move in with a feminist collective in Cleopatra Street, Leeds. She is one of two point-of-view characters, along with Charmaine, a young black artist who is also drawn into the Cleopatra Street orbit.

As the police operation trundles on, the charismatic Rowena arrives at Cleopatra Street, challenging the women who go on Reclaim the Night marches and sneak into the library to put “Degrading to Women” stickers on the Georgette Heyers that the time has come to answer violence with violence.

Close, who was longlisted for the Orange Prize for her first novel Official and Doubtful, is very good at evoking time and place. A cigarette being rolled, the smell of a greasy spoon, “a sky the colour of congealed oxtail soup” and a Kevin Keegan perm all act as portals back to the late 1970s. The flat rhythms of West Yorkshire speech are beautifully rendered.

She resists the temptation to underline the casual sexism of the time with a big red feminist pen. It is so internalised, even by the women, it is simply part of life. They don’t talk about it the way Charmaine doesn’t talk about race: it’s just there. As Seeley muses: “When you thought about it, there was a hell of a lot of sexist crap around that everyone just took as normal”.

The novel is part police procedural, but the hunt for the Ripper was so long, so full of mistakes and blind alleys, it is incapable of lending pace to the story. Instead the tension builds slowly elsewhere. At Cleopatra Street, no one knows Seeley is a cop, but when she’s put under pressure from to inform on the women, her loyalties are divided. Meanwhile, Rowena has captivated the group, but is she about to tear them apart?

Ajay CloseAjay Close
Ajay Close

Quietly, the book becomes a page-turner. Less because of the plot than the way Close evokes real women in a real world, exploring – and this is still rare – the intricate frictions and loyalties in female friendship. It becomes a book which is less about gender, race and class, though it is about all these things, than about human beings: flawed, funny and deeply engaging.

What Doesn’t Kill Us, by Ajay Close, Saraband, £10.99

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