It was no doubt a combination of tussles with my current WIP, Charli Mills’s post on her horror of perfectionism and reaching the end of Shelley Harris’ second novel that reminded me of this feedback from a colleague over twenty years ago. Tasked with resettling longstay psychiatric patients into more ordinary lives within the community (incidentally, the subject of my current WIP), youthful idealism made me susceptible to setting unrealistic goals, both for myself and the service. Not recognising my misguided heroics, my colleague’s comment helped me to take a step back. However much I might have wished to, I couldn’t save the world!
So, although I’ve never been tempted to don a cape and mask and strut about my home town righting wrongs, I don’t find it too difficult to identify with the protagonist of Vigilante, who does exactly that. Jenny Pepper has abandoned her career as an actor to become a mother; now she finds herself increasingly marginal in her teenage daughter’s life and unstimulated in her work as the manager of a charity bookshop, the spark long having gone from her marriage. Rendered virtually invisible by dint of her age, unglamorous job and gender, tidying-up has become her life’s purpose until, en route to a fancy dress party, she witnesses a woman being attacked. Although lacking the skills of a comic-book superhero, Jenny does manage to rescue the woman from her assailant. Soon, her secret identity has become an addiction, threatening her marriage, friendship and her own safety. When a masked villain stalks the town, preying on girls the age of Jenny’s daughter, her alter ego is tested to the limit.
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Having enjoyed Shelley Harris’ debut, Jubilee, and explored it with her here, I was interested to see where her imagination would take her next. When I came across her YouTube trailer, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. It’s such an appealing premise, but does it live up to the hype?
What I felt … was huge, a fury which seemed to arrive in a single instant; it came to me massive and complete, destabilising. But this wasn’t the sort of anger you could create all in one go. It was the sort that is laid down over years and years like sediment, each layer seeming so slight that I hadn’t justified doing anything about it (p104)
This is an engaging, funny, and ultimately moving novel that can be enjoyed on various levels. There’s a mystery/thriller element in the quest to prevent another attack by the masked rapist. It’s a feminist novel in terms of the awakening of a woman’s ambition; reminiscent of Love and Fallout in the husband’s initial difficulties in accommodating to the main character’s need for self-expression. It’s about family, women’s friendship and the parenting of teenagers. In Jenny’s wish to keep her vigilante persona a secret even from her husband and her best friend, and in her own respect for her daughter’s emerging sexual identity, alongside a smalltown community under threat, it explores the tensions between our need for privacy and our need to belong. Like A Replacement Life, the novel raises questions about how to fight injustice, represented by the two extremes of the ostentatious vigilante versus the more mundane charitable fundraising of Jenny’s day job (with echoes of Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase in the photographs and letters found within the pages of the second-hand books).
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Congratulations to Shelley Harris on writing such a fabulous second novel and thanks to Weidenfeld and Nicolson for my trade paperback review copy. For another angle on female fictional heroes, see my post How to Be a Heroine.
Have you ever attempted to be a hero and, if so, how did it work out?