BOOKS: Fiction: The worm turns

Revenge is more than sweet - it's a creme brulee. Gerald Jacobs talks to Helen Zahavi about her blistering novels and the violent fantasies and urges that seethe underneath
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The Independent Culture
About two-thirds of the way through Helen Zahavi's new novel Donna and the Fatman, the central female character questions a violent, bestial act committed by the central male character. "But that's the point, my love," he replies. "It was what we call gratuitous."

It is the point, too. Zahavi's third and best book extends this writer's controlled rage against wanton abuse of power that began in 1990 with Dirty Weekend and continued in 1994 with True Romance. Now, on cue a further four years on, showing more control, more rage, she has produced a story that manages simultaneously to be both funny and frightening. Shorn of the farcical elements of Dirty Weekend and the morbid introspection of True Romance, the latest yarn bears the marks both of the screen thriller and the revenge drama.

Revenge looms large in Zahavi's thinking. In this book it is "more than sweet. It's a creme brulee." She speaks of "not just the right to avenge oneself but the duty - a physical, psychological necessity." She regrets the suppression of the avenging impulse in modern, civilised Western society, and believes this to be an area in which the tabloids are more in tune with reality than the "superior" broadsheet newspapers.

"Sometimes," she says, "crimes are committed that are so horrendous that it is, almost inhuman to expect the victim, or the family of the victim, not to respond. I'm thinking of the simple criminal act without political or nationalistic overtones, the gratuitous act committed for nothing more than self-gratification." In Henry - the "Fatman" of her title - she has created "the pure criminal, the pure psychotic; he does what he does because he can. Other people give way to him because they respect his power." This, Zahavi argues, is but an extreme example at the end of an everyday continuum: "So much in our relationships is predicated on a subconscious acknowledgement of who has the power. Often we're polite to others not because we like them but because they have power. They can hurt us or damage us, employ us or sack us. Most of us are controlled and resentful."

It may be that this is why she places such value on leading a nomadic, autonomous existence. Currently resident in Paris for the second time, she has lived in a number of homes in four different countries - Britain, France, Israel and Ireland - and remained resolutely single since completing her first book. There were few clues to this kind of future in her early days. After an "ordinary" family life in North-West London, where she attended a local grammar school, she eschewed university, learned Russian and became a translator.

Then, "on one of my whims", she went to live in Brighton. She became attached to the place in a big way - "I found it unique, vibrant, throbbing with life and hope and despair and squalor. That was the only time I've ever owned a flat." The town became the context and the inspiration for Dirty Weekend, which she began writing two months after her arrival there. She gave up translating and worked intensively on the novel for six months or so.

It was a tale of a young worm of a woman turning, and taking out a range of manipulative men in a south coast slaying-spree. And it was a sensation. To Julie Burchill it was "brave, brilliant and beautiful ... as if Oscar Wilde had written Death Wish". Melanie Phillips found it so offensive that she threw it in the bin. Andrea Dworkin saw the carnage spreading beyond the novel's own pages: "Poor Martin Amis, poor D M Thomas. The game's over, boys." Edwina Currie described it as "sick rubbish" but later named it as one of her books of the year. It sold like sticks of rock and went into 13 languages. Michael Winner - the all-too-unWildean creator of Death Wish - made it into a film.

While Zahavi and her heroine, Bella, became icons for some feminists (and eyesores for others), she resists the role for herself: "Many men related to Bella, too, as the underdog hitting back. It was not gender- specific. I think the gender stereotyping that goes on these days is diminishing. In Donna and the Fatman, it is Donna's boyfriend, Joe, who is the ultimate victim. She seduces him. He is the innocent and he is the one who is violated, literally and metaphorically, because she chooses him over Henry."

It is perhaps significant, however, that Joe "takes the female role." And when I ask her if she is trying to show male readers what it's like to be a woman, she says darkly, "it would be nice if they had some inkling, don't you think?"

There are two other prominent male characters in the book, a pair of sharptalking, wisecracking, young London gangsters, whose intercutting dialogue of threat and amusement carries distinctive echoes of early Pinter. "I have met violent men who are like that," says Zahavi, " who enjoy the humour of what they say and are good company. They also happen to be a little awkward if you cross them.

"Women feel that all the time," she adds, "not only with really violent men. They feel vulnerable to a certain degree with most men. That's why women can be so charming. It's rooted in fear; fear of offending the male in case he might, just might, lash out. I'm not talking about all men but there's enough of them around.

"Fear of female sexuality is a dominant factor in many men's psychology and goes a long way towards explaining their behaviour. It's frightening that you can have partners who can be very powerful but who are at the same time screwed up and bitter. But, while there are men who genuinely hate women - out of this fear of their sexuality - very few females actually hate men. Men talk about man-hating females but women love men too much, I find. They put up with a lot, make allowances, cope, forgive."

She describes her own attitude to men as "warm, very relaxed. Most of my friends are male. The male/female relationship is what makes the world go round. It's what inspires my writing. I am fascinated by the male/female interaction in all its forms and perversions, and I find that women implode, men explode."

There is explosion aplenty in Donna and the Fatman. It's as if Quentin Tarantino was on a writing sabbatical in North London. From which you can conclude it has very strong cinematic possibilities. Stacked with smart dialogue and a vivid sense of location, it is a virtually ready- made offering to that tiny corpus of Cockney gangster movies that can hold their own against the Hollywood model. Examples don't exactly flood the memory but two of the most haunting, The Long Good Friday and Performance are unsurprisingly among Zahavi's favourites.

Michael Winner is, however, unlikely to be the director this time around. Zahavi was deeply disappointed with the film version of Dirty Weekend. "Although I supported it when it came out, it wasn't my book. It didn't have the dynamism, the feeling, the fear. The violence in the book is very different to the violence in the film, which is bland."

Blandness is not a charge that could be levelled against Helen Zahavi. She retains the professional translator's feel for words. Her prose is laced with jokey literary references and her enjoyment of language is evident in such little touches as the names of her heroines. But, though they are linguistically linked Bella/Donna - there is a thematic difference. "I identified with the story of Bella," Zahavi explains, somewhat in the smiling-yet-menacing tone of her writing. "I behaved like her when I was writing Dirty Weekend. Donna, however, is but one character in the story, along with three gangsters and her boyfriend, the gangsters' driver.

"Donna," she continues, drawing on her Gauloise, "is the girl next door - so watch it."

! 'Donna and the Fatman' is published by Anchor at pounds 9.99.