Helen Fitzgerald – Keep Her Sweet (Blog Tour)
Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99, also available in ebook and audiobook. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. You can buy books direct from Orenda via their website: https://orendabooks.co.uk/
First, the official blurb: Desperate to enjoy their empty nest, Jen and Andeep downsize to the countryside, to forage, upcycle and fall in love again – only to be joined by their two twentysomething daughters, Asha and Camille. Living on top of each other in a tiny house, with no way to make money, tensions simmer, and as Jen and Andeep focus increasingly on themselves, the girls become isolated, argumentative and violent. When Asha injures Camille, a family therapist is called in, but she shrugs off the escalating violence between the sisters as a classic case of sibling rivalry … and the stress of the family move. But this is not sibling rivalry. The sisters are in far too deep for that. This is a murder, just waiting to happen…
A new novel from Helen FitzGerald is simultaneously a massive treat and something to brace yourself for, as she doesn’t spare her characters and whatever they feel, the reader feels too, such is her talent for immersing you in the story – I’m not sure I’ll ever entirely recover from reading Ash Mountain, in particular (check out my review elsewhere).
FitzGerald has lived in Glasgow for many years, but Keep Her Sweet is set in her native Australia, which she paints with the love and knowledge of a native while also turning the sharp gaze of the outsider on both place and people. Parents Penny and Andeep downsized and moved to a small town after their daughters left home, seeking a more creative life and to leave their troubles behind (forgetting that you take your baggage wherever you go). But Asha and Camille have both boomerang’d back to the nest with troubles of their own, and from the moment we meet all four we see the cracks in the relationships between them. Enter family therapist Joy. Why has Penny called in a therapist? Well, the fact Asha broke Camille’s nose in an accident-on-purpose could be a clue…
Joy has her own family difficulties, too. She is moving house after her husband died a few years ago, and having her grown-up daughter move in with her in an effort to keep her clean and sober after a rapid descent into drink and drugs sparked by the grief of losing her father. Joy also has a sister, Rosie, who lives in England – she spends large parts of their conversations bossing Joy around, but it seems to come from a genuine love and they do have a close bond despite the miles; a more usual pattern for siblings once they have outgrown the toy-smashing stage than Asha and Camille.
As the family prepares for an open house event, there’s a distinct sense of unease and a sense we’re holding our collective breath in the build-up to something devastating – this sense continues as the chapters slowly wind up the tension through days and nights that are by turns mundane and ridiculous and deeply unsettling to something we know is coming, though the how and when are anyone’s guess.
Plenty of people think Camille and Asha’s relationship is perfectly normal – “Oh, you should have seen what my sister did to me” is heard more than once. But when Asha says to Camille, “look what you’ve made me do” I felt sick. This is a classic line from an abuser to blame their victim, and it waved a massive red flag at me (as did Camille’s repeated, desperate apologies). The warning signs are clear, but have been ignored.
Joy’s fragile hopes crash down and she has to yet again pick herself up and persuade herself she is making a choice rather than taking the only option. Penny’s desperate attempts to create the perfect family life go up in flames. Asha’s assumption that everything will work in her favour are dashed. Camille finally gets the upper hand, and it’s unbearable because all I think is “be careful what you wish for”. And then, as a truly shocking scene unfolds, I laugh. Yes, I laugh out loud while sitting on my couch, then hastily clap a hand over my mouth – I can’t possibly be caught laughing at this! But I did, and I bet you will too. Because FitzGerald is simply that good at injecting blacker than black humour into places you think it really shouldn’t go.
Finally, Joy gets to truly help Camille, after the family therapy sessions failed miserably. Bravo, Joy, practical and resilient and helpful to the end. Camille I have some sympathy for, she has been abused for so long she can’t see another way to live her life. But Asha and their parents, and indeed pretty much every other character in this novel all need a bloody good smack in the chops. That’s FitzGerald’s other great talent: populate a novel with seriously unlikeable characters and let them loose on the reader, who can’t help but be drawn in.
Being an only child, my friends’ sibling relationships have long fascinated me – and sometimes entertained or horrified me too. Despite pitying comments from adults (all forgetting how much their children fought), never once did I wish for a sibling. Reading Keep Her Sweet has reconfirmed my belief that I definitely don’t mind being an only child…
Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of ten adult and young adult thrillers, including The Donor (2011) and The Cry (2013), which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and adapted into a major BBC drama. Her 2019 dark comedy thriller Worst Case Scenario was a Book of the Year in the Literary Review, the Herald, Guardian and Daily Telegraph, shortlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and won the CrimeFest Last Laugh Award. Her latest title Ash Mountain was published in 2020. Helen worked as a criminal justice social worker for more than 15 years. She grew up in Victoria, Australia, and now lives in Glasgow with her husband.
You can find my review of Helen’s novel Ash Mountain elsewhere on the blog – I highly recommend you read it, I was totally blown away by it.