Steel yourself: by page 12, we know categorically that the Gutteridges' four-year-old daughter Samantha is dead; three pages later, that her parents had locked her in a cage and left her to die. Suspense and plot, then, were not chief among Carol Topolski's interests when crafting this startling debut novel. Monster Love is constructed from a sequence of testimonies, mostly monologues, by people affected by the Gutteridges' hideous crime. This yields an impressionistic rather than forensic account of the murder, allowing Topolski – "a practising psychoanalytical psychotherapist" – to focus on psychology rather than action (which is, essentially: Sherilyn and Brendan have a daughter, then kill her, are caught, tried and punished).
Abused by her father and ignored by her periodically demented mother, Sherilyn recognises a soul mate in her colleague Brendan. The attraction is visceral, swiftly developing into a telepathic interdependence more reminiscent of twins than lovers. When the Gutteridges move into one of the five new houses built on a plot where a rambling Victorian pile had been demolished, Quinley Crescent's residents find their welcoming overtures blanked by precise manners deployed not for courtesy but "to repulse contact". The messy fact of Samantha, the result of Brendan's failed vasectomy, launches a full-blown assault on this hermetically sealed world which justifies, in the deranged logic of the Gutteridges, the grotesque extremity of their response.
The turbulence of many different voices trying to come to terms with the Gutteridges' crime is the real focus of this striking novel, and initially, Topolski's skill at fleshing out diverse and interesting characters is reminiscent of David Mitchell's ability to switch from voice to voice. Charlotte, a retired teacher and active grandmother, eventually raised the alarm after spying on her new neighbours, but is racked with guilt for not acting on earlier suspicions. Old-school copper Alun, who discovered Samantha's body, has a breakdown and can scarcely testify while Kaye, the over-stressed child protection officer whose shoddy work failed to rescue the girl, retires early after her job goes "down the shithole".
Topolski's writing is crisp and affecting but not without flaws. The intense shock and disgust of her early characters gradually gives way to a deflating procession of less vital testimonies. Monster Love has similarities with Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. Both novels quickly announce their ghastly outcomes, but Shriver has the advantage of building up to the dramatic spectacle of Kevin's killing spree. Topolski's structure sacrifices that suspense, by placing all her drama up front, and the denouement, reliant on the mystical, telepathic communion between Brendan and Sherilyn, feels at odds with the novel's emotional realism.
The possibility of these remorseless sociopaths being the product of defective genes or nurture, and the more intriguing theme of the induced guilt that sullies the innocent bystanders to the murder, are insufficiently explored by Topolski, but her sharp-eyed writing talent holds the promise of more exciting work ahead.
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