Keep Her Sweet, Helen Fitzgerald
It must take real writing skill to create a novel around 3.5 of the most unpleasant, conflicted, dysfunctional and frequently flat out awful people you'd ever read about, and make it as compelling and downright fascinating as KEEP HER SWEET.
The premise is quite the undertaking. Parents Penny and Andeep Moloney-Singh (two of the most self-centred and delusional people you'd ever not want to meet), downsize to an inner city building in Ballarat with Penny wanting them to find themselves again, and turn their lives around (not sure Andeep was ever fully onboard with that particular project). This seemed to involve a rather chaotic combination of upcycling, foraging, contents sale parties, and whatever the hell was going on in over-blown, over-dramatic, easy to see why you'd get rapidly over her, Penny's head. Andeep is a "was a stand up comedian" trying to get his career back on track after a humdinger of a misspeak, but mostly he seems to dither around in the background getting on the reader's nerves.
Then there are daughters Asha (first-born) and Camille (second-born). Camille had lobbed into the parents house and life again (a house which is categorically not designed for 4 people to live in it, let alone 3.5 utter wastes of space like these), but she's unemployed, and, traumatised. Asha, is at home because the court case that ended up with her wearing an electronic tag said she had to have a supervised place of residence and, well here she is. Asha's in trouble for thumping the pastor of her church with a heavy metal coffee tamperer, causing injury and stitches. The same pastor she professes an undying love for, despite him being married, and well the church is one of those with a sect feeling about it, lots of speaking in tongues and loud intrusive praying (which Asha delights in continuing much to Camille's frustration). Asha's blocked from contacting the pastor, and she's ... how to understate this .... not handling it well. She's prone to explosive temper tantrums and after breaking her sister's nose (netball incident allegedly), a family therapist is called in to try to help what is most definitely a sinking ship. Sinking rapidly because Asha's violence and manipulation of Camille just continues to escalate. The question quickly becomes whether this is a family where all hands will be lost or is somebody going to get out of this with some dignity, and ability to breath, left.
Family therapist Joy has issues of her own. Her dentist husband has died, her daughter's a hopeless meth addict, she's selling the fancy family home on Wendouree Parade and buying a unit in Sebastopol (Ballarat aware people will instantly get the subtext - although there's plenty of context in the novel if you don't get the references). Despite her "talking it up" the move is mostly about paying for her daughter's rehab, and her bail, and more rehab, and on it goes. Meanwhile her sister would really like her to head to the UK for a holiday, an idea that seems like a really good one, until the money gets tighter, and the families she's working with get stranger.
Fitzgerald has managed, somehow, damned if I quite know how, to use this scenario to create a thriller that's both darkly funny and compulsive reading. Maybe part of the attraction is that this all seemed so real, there was so much in this novel that rang true. Blackly funny, this family are exactly the sort of neighbours that you'd desperately want to move away from, whilst simultaneously fighting the temptation to set up the deckchairs to spectate more comfortably.
I suspect some readers will find this not at all to their taste - maybe because of the unpleasant people, maybe because the scenario of deeply dysfunctional people in a deeply dysfunctional household is not a comfortable place to spend time. But there is heaps of dark humour here, and there's affection, and not everything is completely without hope. And the .5 of a Moloney-Singh that deserves better, does eventually find someone prepared to step in, when others are determined to care more about themselves and actively ignore the one person, who despite their own faults, and actions, really is a victim.
When Jen and Andeep downsize to a lovely bluestone house in Ballarat, they don't expect to be followed by their spatting twenty-something daughters, Asha and Camille. Soon the family is living on top of each other in a tiny house and tensions simmer. As the parents focus increasingly on themselves, the girls become isolated, argumentative and violent. When Asha injures Camille, a family therapist is called in, but she shrugs off the escalating violence as a classic case of sibling rivalry and the stress of the family move.
But this is no ordinary sibling rivalry. These sisters are too far gone for that ....