Secretary takes a sickie

FICTION: STALKING FIONA by Nigel Williams, Granta pounds 15.99

There are times when you suspect, reading Nigel Williams's disagreeable new novel, that he's attempting satire; just as there are times when you think he may be on the brink of an insight deep enough to justify this exercise in tastelessness. In both cases the impression quickly fades. Fiona, our frail secretary heroine, has been attacked and raped, once in her home, once at a hotel, possibly by the same masked man who has been murdering women down by the river. She knows her assailant is one of the three men in her office, all conveniently similar in build. Shaken, nervous, back at home with mum, she wakes to the sound of a package thumping on the doormat. It contains a computer disk with the rapist's gloating, anonymous account of his crimes, a huge, self-exculpating letter from one of the men, Paul, and excerpts from Fiona's own diary, with annotations by her boss. Having decided not to go to the police, she settles down to read, hoping thereby to divine the identity of her attacker. This means she has to read a brutal account of her own violation.

The idea of a crime seen - and solved - through four perspectives is intriguing, but it doesn't take very long for the plot to founder on the rocks of implausibility. Why doesn't Fiona go to the police? Oh, because the attacker has threatened to kill her if she does. Given that she has already had sex with Paul, how come she still can't tell - smell, size, sixth-sense - whether or not he's also the rapist? Can we believe that a rape victim would hand over her intimate diaries to a suspect? The problems multiply rather than resolve as the narrative progresses. Just how likely is it that a woman, raped in the night, will cheerfully turn up for work the next morning and go out for a lunchtime pizza with a man who might well be the rapist?

As she sifts the evidence, the three men turn up to plead, protest and blame each other. Fiona, still reading, decides she is safe as long as she keeps at least two of them in sight. The texts fragment and expand as the men creep up behind her and read over her shoulder, making interjections. Williams's deftness with the three-card trick is dizzying as he constantly shuffles the permutations.

Fiona herself is a compulsive writer as well as reader. The rapist describes his vigil in her bedroom: "She sat up in bed ... I thought at first that she was doing her nails. But such was the silence in the room that, after a minute or two, I could make out ... the scritch-scratch of a pen across paper. Oh Fiona! She's writing her fucking diary!" As a tricksy, postmodern subversion of novelistic conventions, this is old stuff; Fielding was here first in Shamela, his 1741 satire on Richardson's much-assaulted, scribbling heroine.

This is no whodunnit: Williams doesn't play by those rules. He taunts the reader with the untrustworthiness of the written word ("this is a story about how things look, about how a tone of voice or a trick of style can betray you and ... how words on a page can lie as easily and cruelly as the false lover in whose arms you may have fallen peacefully asleep"). But the solution isn't guessable, no matter how close the reading. At the end of the book, one of the three ciphers dutifully unmasks himself. "Now I knew it was him, of course, I couldn't understand why I hadn't recognised the fact long ago" - well, because there wouldn't have been a story then, Fiona.

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