10 July 2021

#Review - The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry

The 22 Murders of Madison May
Max Barry
Hodder and Stoughton, 8 July 2021
Available as: HB, 336pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN(HB): 9781529352092

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The 22 Murders of Madison May via NetGalley.

This review is slightly spoilery, for what I hope are good reasons. But be warned!

The 22 Murders of Madison May is a well-written psychological thriller which takes a now fairly familiar premise - parallel worlds - and makes something fresh and disturbing. At the same time though it takes a trope - a woman under threat - that is equally familiar (over familiar) and - well, I'm not sure whether it succeeds in making something new of that, or not. Let me explain.

The Maddison - Maddie - of the title is a real estate agent working in New York.

She's a struggling actress, studying in New York, chasing that big opportunity, that part which will change her life.

She's a barista, making ends meet as best she can when her dreams of stardom won't, quite, come true.

She has a boyfriend. She's broken up with her boyfriend. She's about to get back with her boyfriend.

Flickering alternatives, second chances - and a constant, ever looming threat.

That aspect of things - the threat - is the centrepiece of this story, and it's one which I think deserves a  warning because for many women the moves, the beats, of this experience will be familiar. Maddie is careful. She keeps her keys handy, ready to clutch between her fingers. Her phone is charged. Estate agent Maddie takes a photo on her mobile of her clients. Another Maddie worries about being alone in a subway car with a stranger and ponders the tactics: stay or go? Which is safer? Get off a stop early and walk? How busy are the streets roundabout? A third Maddie joins up with a group of friends for a weekend party, seeing the company as offering some safety.

Maddie is just so careful. Barry shows how her safety consciousness is ingrained in her daily life. The opening scenes show how Maddie, showing a house off to a new client, juggles the professional - lighting candles to mask the property's odour - with the professional/ personal - changing into heels and deploying a little acting-school glamour to hurry the sale along - with safety precautions - that mobile phone shot, leaving doors open, always being aware she is in relation to him

It's something we see throughout the book. Yet several times we also we see her dead, simply overwhelmed by an attacker, wrong footed by following a social convention for just a bit too long, distracted, flummoxed. Despite all her precautions, all her plans. 

This is a stark recognition by a male author of the conditions in which so many women go about their daily lives. As a man I'm not qualified to say whether that should be read as affirming, recognising these things or how far it will stir uncomfortable memories for some women. The book simply won't be one some wish to read, I think. It did, though, stir uncomfortable empathy from this man and I hope from others too. It should not I think need remarking on when this state of affairs is acknowledged, but here we are.

Going beyond this acknowledgement, Barry gives Maddie's dilemmas a parallel-worlds spin. The Maddie's we see here (and by implication, others we don't) are in different universes, but all of them are in the same danger . Not just the same danger as in, generic male violence, but, in their different worlds, they are targets of the same man. There is a particular threat coming after them. So we get to see Maddie's generic, sensible precautions come up against the same, targeted, menace from a man who has studied them before in other worlds, who knows them sometimes better than they know themselves. 

This setup made me feel a bit queasy, I have to say. It's like seeing the same rigged sporting contest over and over again (but of course with totally different stakes than a sporting contest). That's where I began to worry whether this story successfully skewers the "Well, she should have done X/ Shouldn''t have done Y" carping, by showing the outcomes of many X and Y? Or whether, rather than subverting the almost universal trope of a man hurting a woman, this alternative actually reinforces it? Despite being a slickly, compellingly written thriller with a whole additional science fictional cant that I won't share (spoilers), plenty of twists and turns (and with Felicity! - I'll tell you about her in a moment) I'm not sure my unease at this aspect ever completely went away. I'm still thinking about that.

Anyway, Felicity. 

Felicity is great. A newspaper reporter, she's another woman with an existence in the parallel worlds where we see Maddie, but unlike Maddie, Felicity has some inkling of what's going on, and she makes it her business to become Maddie's guardian angel. Having to come to terms with all those different lives she might be living - symbolised here by variants on her boyfriend, Gavin - Felicity's dilemma is as much philosophical as anything else, as she tries to understand exactly what is happening to reality, and to act morally within that understanding. If there is a place where The 22 Murders of Madison May confidently overcomes that central trope, it's in Felicity and the real level of responsibility she feels to all those many worlds, not just the one she is in. 

Also, her determination and rage, which take her on a long journey from the slightly glib political correspondent we meet at the start of the book, checking out a crime scene as a favour to a colleague. Felicity's growth and maturing made this book a rewarding experience in itself for me, although as I have said above, the subject matter means it won't for everyone, I think. 

But as I also said above, The 22 Murders of Madison May is never less than well written and it is always thought provoking and engaging.

For more information about The 22 Murders of Madison May, see the publisher's website here.

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