Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.
The blurb on the front of this book hails it as American Psycho meets Fleabag. And for once that advertisement is pretty true to the life of this extraordinary novel. This anti-hero is psychotic without doubt, sexually voracious and incredibly funny.
The first person narrative is sustained from more than 400 pages and doesn’t begin to strain until maybe page 382. And that is a feat considering the narrator is self-obsessed, a liar and a misanthrope. She’s also an astute and seasoned killer – amassing a body count of a half dozen or so by the end of Sweetpea.
The tale begins on New Year’s Eve with Rhiannon “don’t call me Sweetpea” Lewis out with the friends she barely tolerates. The girls see off 2016 in jolly and drunken fashion at a pretentious restaurant where Rhiannon meets the hapless but randy Daniel Wells. He plans for the new year to start with a bang (of Rhiannon) and it sort of does. But our man gets no chance to exercise bragging rights as he sees in 2017 as a corpse castrato bobbing in a filthy canal.
The story continues in the form of diary entries over a six-month period. Our Bridget Jones of Vengeance lays out her dreary job at an obscure newspaper, her relationship with a two-timing professional handyman with the world’s most boring parents and her superficial female friendships. Thankfully this is peppered by her repeated barbs at the travails of modern life and her occasional forays into murder.
Her victims are usually chosen with good reason – rapists and paedophiles are prime targets. Some of Rhiannon’s victims’ offenses might not merit capital punishment (see the now grown woman who tormented Rhiannon as a schoolgirl). Skuse’s great skill lies both in guiding the reader to understand (if not excuse) Rhiannon’s grudges and to play along with the murderous spree. And this Skuse does by carefully dropping in hints as to the young woman’s horrific past and unusual childhood. The first big reveal doesn’t come until page 80 with one major humdinger not presented until almost page 300, and so a reviewer has to be especially careful with spoilers, lest jaws fail to head south at the right moments.
Skuse’s previous works have been for young adults and it shows - in a good way. Her ear for the vernacular and tastes of the late twenty-somethings is finely tuned and put to good use in Sweetpea. Rhiannon raises not suffering fools to Olympic heights and her asides on such modern-day irritants as snacking on public transport, overuse of “amazing” and “awesome” or misuse of apostrophes are often riotously funny. They remain hilarious even as we learn more about the terrifying childhood that spawned this homicidal young woman.
I closed this book not judging Rhiannon and glad I got to spend a short portion of my life in her company. And I’ll bet all readers will be mindful not to queue-jump at Lidl’s or brag inappropriately on Twitter lest they offend a plump young woman with a sharp tongue, sharper wit and an even sharper set of kitchen knives.