By Diane Awerbuck for The Sunday Times
The New Girl
SL Grey (Penguin)
A thin grief pervades SL Grey’s The New Girl, a hopelessness that isn’t present in the two preceding novels in the Downside series – The Mall and The Ward. In the tradition of Kafka and Coetzee, Grey presents characters trapped by self-inflicted misery. They speak in sitcom dialogue and have names worthy of Pieter-Dirk Uys, and they are us.
Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg, the two writers behind the SL Grey horror machine, are not interested in easy targets. Lotz says she hopes the tone is more satirical or dark than scornful, but admits that they do skewer “the middle-class school conveyor belt.” Greenberg explains, “The location is my neighbourhood, the situations everyday ones. I like my suburb and my mall; I’m generally at peace with my suburban routine. Sarah and I complement each other in this way. She gets angry about bourgeois complacencies and I can lend empathy for bourgeois motivations, so there’s equilibrium in the end.”
The New Girl reverses the motion of the previous narratives. Instead of two characters descending into the subterranean universe of the Downside, the enemy – the girl of the title – has been emboldened, and has come upside to operate in broad daylight. Not only that – she is aided in her mission by brutal schools, careless parents and greedy adults. Humans have ever been the agents of their own destruction.
Crossley College is both frightening and normal, peopled with a host of undesirable characters. Here is Tara Marais, a library volunteer, the unhappy mother to a surly stepson, Martin, who changes radically and then disappears. Ryan Devlin is the janitor, a priapic alcoholic suspected of raping both his daughter and a neighbour. Both these “browns” are fascinated by Jane, the new student avoided by the other kids.
With good reason. Jane is posing as the daughter of “Mother”, Penter Ulliel, one point of a familial triangle sent upside to scout for pliable talent. Downside needs primo new products to harvest for labour and parts, and where better to start than a school campus, where conformity is rewarded?
The New Girl gives us the fix we’ve come to expect from Grey – piercing observations that tell us horrible little truths. “That crack of a bottle-top; as satisfying as a good, spine-crackling stretch”. There is less gore than the previous books: less skop-skiet-en-donder; more Morning After than Night Before. At its best the prose is purposeful and poetic and the plot knotty with suspense. At its worst it is weighed down with anti-capitalist rhetoric, or reanimates standard horror clichés.
But it is always an extreme vision of a recognisable South Africa. It’s Roger Ballen at McDonald’s: our institutions are breeding grounds for unremarked self-deception and casual cruelty. And Grey knows that with every upgrade and adaptation we have less chance of loving honestly, of being loved. The real theme of the novel is that attachment – healthy and unhealthy, biological and acquired. Lotz says that the easiest part was writing about Tara’s obsession with Reborn dolls – which are not fictional at all, but are real-life, realistic infant dolls, often used as a coping mechanism for loss, that retail online from R3500. “I learned how to make them, and delved into the psychology of the women who are compelled to create and buy them, which was in turns fascinating and upsetting.”
The New Girl further deprives the reader of the thrill of “safe” horror: the knowledge that suffering is happening far away and to someone else. That bleed into reality necessarily affects the writers. Lotz says, “I still find it disturbing to walk through malls and hospitals – which shows that writing about your darkest fears doesn’t necessarily help eradicate them.” Greenberg adds, “Once you go to the Downside, you never quite come back. Everywhere you look, there’s something that’s ripe for Downside treatment. One day we could move it down to Parliament.”
Ultimately we must feel the authors’ disgust at human cowardice and cupidity, as well as their compassion for the species. In The New Girl, there is no heroic overcoming of odds – only an acceptance of compromise. Perhaps there is something heroic in that. Read it and weep – while your model still comes with tear ducts.