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The Killing Jar By Nicola Monaghan

The drugs still don't work

About a decade ago, a broadsheet printed a gritty photo of the local shops in my working-class area of Nottingham under the headline "Crack City". I thought the hacks had overplayed the dealing and odd turf-war shooting. Nicola Monaghan's startling and potent début novel confirms that they picked the wrong neighbourhood. Set a mile or two away from where I lived, The Killing Jar is a vibrant, shocking blast of life from Broxtowe, an altogether seedier estate on the western edge of Nottingham, where Monaghan grew up.

Kerrie Anne Hill first appears as a five-year-old, fascinated by the insect collection of Mrs Ivanovich, a widowed and dying entomologist. She uses the cyanide from her insect-killing jar to lace pans of water that she had discreetly asked the child to lug into her room, thereby becoming the first of several deaths in which Kerrie Anne is unwittingly involved. Barely five years later, she is selling wraps in the playground of her junior school for Frank, one of a succession of "uncles" who have moved in and out of her mother's bed. She and Mark Scotland, the teenage son of Frank's jailbird crony, crawl through terraced attics to get guns and drugs out of the house where armed police have Frank holed up.

One of Monaghan's skills is allowing the penny to drop in Kerrie Anne's artless narration with a convincing time-lapse for denial. Frank is obviously bad trouble, but Mark charmingly apologises for spelling out that he's also a pimp, and her mother is on the game (again). By early teens, she is dealing a full portfolio in partnership with Mark.

It's tempting to see Kerrie Anne as a rave-culture update on Arthur Seaton, Alan Sillitoe's restless, anti-authoritarian sexual force in his groundbreaking 1958 novel of working class Nottingham youth, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Monaghan similarly uses the strong but fluent accent to flavour her pacey narrative, but the threats, deals and joyrides are closer to Welsh's Trainspotting in their exultant, drug-fuelled energy.

Monaghan treads a careful line between the horrors of junk and the relative highs of drug use. Her convincing characters swing unpredictably between terrifying and tender, and the often violent encounters usually have a bleakly funny edge.

The entire Broxtowe Estate acts as a chemical-filled killing jar in this powerful and complex novel, with Kerrie Anne the colourful specimen desperately clawing for an escape.

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