The Sunshine Cruise Company by John Niven, book review: Middle-aged chick lit that breaks all the conventions

A group of women aged from their mid-teens to advanced eighties get to behave in a thoroughly disreputable fashion

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The Independent Culture

Lapdancers, wives – either virtuous or castrating – bank cashiers and world-weary detectives: such are the functions customarily occupied by the female of the species in the crime capers of page and screen.

While dishonourable exceptions do bubble up – Gone Girl's sleek female psychopath; Helen Mirren's gun-toting senior citizen in Red; the female protagonists of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill and Death Proof – it's rare even in a genre that endlessly embraces twists on its own conventions for the wit and the wickedness to reside primarily with female characters. Thelma and Louise might have made a major impact on its release, but the fact that it remains such a prominent point of comparison for female-fronted crime stories a quarter of a century later only serves to emphasise how few have asserted themselves since.

A hearty bloodstained handshake, then, for John Niven's The Sunshine Cruise Company, in which a group of women aged from their mid-teens to advanced eighties get to behave in a thoroughly disreputable fashion. Disreputable, but – as in the case of the aforementioned Thelma and Louise – not wholly immoral. The crimes depicted herein are the consequence not of avarice, but of varying degrees of necessity, desperation and sheer rage at a system that has sidelined their perpetrators.

Sixty-year-old Susan faces losing her home when her husband and provider, Barry, suddenly expires in a sexual misadventure the aftermath of which exposes decades of covert financial misdeeds. Her schoolfriend Julie has a series of misfortunes behind her, a minimum-wage old age stretching ahead, and nothing much to lose. Timid churchgoer Jill has one chink in her armour of respectability: her beloved and ailing grandson Jamie, who needs expensive medical treatment. And Ethel… well, no, the libidinous, foulmouthed, nonagenarian Ethel is just in it for kicks. Although she does step in to provide a bolstering influence on a young French runaway, Vanessa, who comes along for part of the ride… But we risk getting ahead of ourselves. Niven is known for the hit music industry satire Kill Your Friends, now an upcoming film starring Nicholas Hoult; for well-received follow-ups including 2013's Straight White Male; and, latterly, for being uproarious on Twitter, particularly when Andy Murray is engaged in important games of tennis.

This new novel, Niven's seventh, breaks with his usual habit of laying bare the male psyche, but retains his celebrated strengths: sparky, unfussy writing; a fast-moving plot; and, most notably, an ability to be thoroughly outspoken about matters sexual and scatological whilst retaining a surprising degree of empathy for the human trials of his characters.

Comic fiction that reduces all its personnel to mere caricatures can be a trial to read, but this book, for all the amped-up extremity of the events it portrays, works because its characters get a grounding in emotional reality as well as a bunch of outrageous events with which to contend. Even the outrageous Ethel has a backstory – one that winds up being very useful once she joins Susan, Julie and Jill in a hastily-cobbled-together bank job.

The Sunshine Cruise Company isn't very deep, but it is engaging, utterly accessible and boundary-bending: middle-aged chick lit that follows none of the conventions of middle-aged chick lit; lad lit that features no lads. In other words, it's for pretty much anyone, provided they can stomach Ethel's vocabulary and the unsavoury details of Barry's exit from life.

There's a reason, also, that cinematic reference points spring to mind: Niven writes with a big-screen sensibility, and it would be a major thrill to see a story like this in movie form. Might the ladies of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel be persuaded to consider a slightly racier residence…?