In Kerry Hudson’s accomplished second novel, a security guard catches a young shoplifter in the act and they drift first into a tentative friendship and then an uneasy relationship in which neither can entirely trust the other. The story of a trafficked sex worker falling in love with the man who first catches and then tries to save her ought to be cliché-riddled at best and mildly distasteful at worst. Instead, Hudson expertly weaves the separate tales of two people with frustrated ambition in desperate circumstances.
Hudson is unflinching in her depiction of the brutal series of sexual assaults perpetrated by Alena’s captors, but it never descends into sensationalism. Alena is more than a victim, Dave more than the nice guy he tries so hard to be. The flashbacks to Alena’s life in Russia are heartbreaking, the confident, articulate woman eager for adventure completely at odds with the trapped, vulnerable girl whose English is as broken as she is and who depends entirely on the kindness of strangers. Hudson’s greatest accomplishment here is in making Dave a fully realised character, rather than a one-dimensional do-gooder or just another in a long line of men who take advantage of Alena’s vulnerability. He latches on to Alena to fill the emptiness in his life, fully aware that she is using him as well, their relationship the only thing keeping either of them afloat.
Their clumsy attempt at a relationship is one of the novel’s most touching moments, whilst at the same time being the calm before the storm – both Alena and the reader know that she can’t run from her past forever. But while Alena’s story unfolds with horrible inevitability, Hudson saves the sucker punch of Dave’s backstory for last.
Hudson has an eye for detail and her meticulous research shows without bogging down the narrative. Her skill is in snapshots of the everyday from the perspective of people whose voices are rarely heard, and through the eyes of a previously homeless Russian illegal immigrant even the more down-at-heel parts of Hackney have a sort of poetry.
There are villains, but no obvious heroes. Every relationship, even the most loving, is transactional, everyone is motivated by self-preservation. It’s a bleak outlook, but Hudson makes it beautiful. Heart-wrenching without being maudlin, Thirst is a novel about the scraps of hope that people find when they’re completely out of options.