Freight Books, Glasgow, 2015
PB, 266 pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this book.
This book - Innes' debut novel - is thoughtful, sometimes angry, sometimes funny, always well written, and deserves a wide readership.
Fiona Leonard, a young Glasgow office worker, splits her life between work and caring for six year old Beth. Hovering over the family is the unspoken presence of Rona, Fiona's younger sister who disappeared several years before. Neither Fiona nor her parents have come to terms with this, but the time is now coming when Rona could be officially declared dead. So Fiona's chance discovery of news about Rona offers her a last opportunity, perhaps, of tracing her sister.
Fiona doesn't imagine a lovey-dovey family reconciliation. She wants to confront Rona, make her realise what her absence has cost the family, what - as Fiona sees it - she has taken on for Rona, what she has given up: "That world I missed out on whilst living someone else's middle-age."
It's a complicated situation, made more so - as Fiona renews her search for Rona - by what she discovers. Rona had been a sex worker. The fact makes Fiona hyperaware, of course, of all those signs around her that she would normally screen out, of the ordinary details of a side of life she would choose to ignore. At the same time, Fiona's employer, a construction firm, wins a contract to redevelop a building used as a drop in centre for sex workers. She has both a reason to find out more, to try and locate Rona, and an opportunity to ask questions.
This is where the book's political purpose comes to the fore. That's not meant as a judgement, Innes has written a passionately committed book which argues strongly against shaming, stigmatisation and criminalization of sex work, against the assumption that it is inevitably degrading that participants are victims. She uses the events around the redevelopment, around what is for Fiona a journey of discovery, to illustrate the theme and give voices to those involved. There's always a risk when a book takes a strong position like this of a book coming over as preachy, propagandistic, of the story and characters being made to serve the message but Innes avoids falling into this trap. She draws convincing, three dimensional characters and has constructed a plot that hums along and draws the reader in, taking various viewpoints and moving back and forward through events (mostly in paired narratives: now/ then, public/ private, back/ forth and so on). And the writing, as I said above, is excellent, coupled with razor sharp observations on work, life, women and men.
As you would expect given the themes the book is fairly explicit in places but - and this perhaps shouldn't need saying but I will anyway - doesn't set out to offend or titillate: it is about something that happens, deal with it, and get on, don't judge is the message (both implicit and explicit).
An enjoyable, even uplifting, book.