Starfishing, by Nicola Monaghan

Sex and drugs and trading pits
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The Independent Culture

'Starfishing' blasts open with the surging pulse and flailing limbs of a sweat-soaked house night. Chemically enhanced euphoria swells to a noisy high as the jostling actors exult in the numinous transactions of their dance. This is not, in fact, a nightclub. It's the trading floor of LIFFE, the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange. The adrenalin-fuelled overlap between trading and clubbing give an intense focus and continuity to Nicola Monaghan's exciting and fluent second novel.

Traders, not always able to establish clear boundaries between the two activities, throng Monaghan's plot. Frankie Cavanagh lands a trainee trading job, by playing Spoof with her future boss, the pumped-up Chicagoan Tom Phillips for whom she is "sick with lust". There's little subtlety to Frankie. A working-class Essex "estate girl", she is "viciously and unashamedly" ambitious, meticulous about keeping her relationships in the shallows of expedient gratification.

Her visceral thirst for Tom is slaked after token resistance. Colleagues resent her proximity to Tom and her appearance of shrugging off their schoolboy taunts. It's 1997, and electronic bidding is threatening the testosterone-charged bear-pit system. But the almost exclusively male trading floor remains staunchly puerile and spiteful, with routine shouts of "Beaver!" following her around.

Monaghan draws on her own trading experience without freighting her novel with dogma. The driving force is the characters' enthusiastic pursuit of the next adrenalin high, and Monaghan subtly juxtaposes the emptiness of post-drug comedowns with the close of the day's frantic business. Increasingly outrageous dares fill this hollowness for Frankie and Tom. Their risk-hungry relationship and insomniac partying steadily escalate the tension of a linear plot.

The Killing Jar, Monaghan's punchy debut novel, resolved with a degree of optimism for its flawed but defiant narrator. Starfishing uses a similar charge of pill-popping hedonism to sustain its narrative pace, but replaces family dysfunction with Frankie's hard-bitten suppression of childhood trauma. The resulting ambience of mistrust permeates Starfishing to its dramatic climax. It makes the novel both breathtaking in its pursuit of a game-playing relationship, and shocking in its suggestion of a moral vacuum that pulls in the major players.

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