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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss