It’s a lovely warm night, a night for rosé wine and sitting on the steps admiring the tulips. Spring is most definitely here because nine year old Joe has resumed his seasonal mountaineering practice and is climbing in and out of the front window. But the Divine Ms Anna, dressed all in black, has darker things in mind. No vernal frolics for us - the guest of honour at tonight’s literary salon is Helen Fitzgerald, whose affable exterior and laconic manner hide a seething mass of twisted preoccupations. No wonder the soup tonight is deep red borscht, curdling in the plate like blood.
Last time Helen came to talk to the salon it was about The Cry, a piece of domestic noir that became a bestseller. Her latest novel, The Exit, falls into the category of dementia noir, a sinister tale of Alzheimer’s, danger and unspeakable sexual proclivities promulgated on the internet. She decided to write it when she came back from Australia after the death of her own father two years ago. ‘Then I discovered everyone was writing about dementia,’ she says, laughing.
Her initial thought, she admits, was to write about elderly people being sexually abused. A shudder goes round Ms Anna’s living room at the very idea. ‘I know. No-one wants to read about that,’ says Helen, whose publishers did however agree to her writing about an equally esoteric form of sexual abuse, no less repellent, though I won’t reveal it for those who haven’t yet read the book. Suffice to say that the ways of the publishing world are mysterious to the point of incomprehensibility. Religions have been founded on less gnomic principles than the book industry.
From dementia to sexual abuse may seem a strange leap of thought to those unfamiliar with the Fitzgerald oeuvre, which is dark, taut and deals with the very worst of human nature. This nihilism is clearly a family trait. Helen’s sister Ria, stylish in short dress and cowboy boots and as blonde and slender as Helen is dark and slender, confesses that she has frequent mental rehearsals for the day she has to get out of the back seat of a car sinking in the river. ’You don’t want those electric windows. They could just stop working altogether if water gets into them,’ she insists. Those of us without the Fitzgerald gene for imagining Gothic life events would clearly be at a distinct disadvantage in case of vehicular flooding.
Helen’s first encounter with dying was the death of her grandmother when she was 19. Visiting her in a Melbourne hospice left her shaken.
‘I was young and frightened of old people. I felt I was in there forever but it was only five minutes probably.’
Her grandmother confided that the staff were poisoning her, something Helen dismissed as the fantasies of a demented old lady at the time. It was only later that the thought began to emerge. What if it wasn’t?
Perhaps because of her own family history, her sympathetic portrait of Rose, an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s, is one of the triumphs of the book. Rather than showing the disease, she shows the person - who she was both as a child, when she suffered a traumatic experience that she is forced to re-live now, and as an adult, when she was a writer and illustrator of children‘s books.
Helen has herself published ten books, with another out next year, a level of industry that is in itself staggering - until you learn that she also works part-time as a social worker in the criminal justice system, helping offenders.
One of her great preoccupations in The Exit is the way the internet facilitates sexual offending, which leads the salonistas into a discussion of the problems of controlling how younger generations use computers.
We’re technologically outsmarted by our children,’ sighs Ms Anna, recalling an occasion when Joe, then only seven years old, wanted her to fix his i-Pad. She forgot to re-set the parental controls, and by the time she realised her mistake he’d already downloaded an app called 100 Best Sexual Positions. Although this now provides fertile material for blackmail - If you don’t eat your Weetabix/ stop climbing through the front window/go to bed this minute, I’ll tell so and so what you were watching - it does fill her with anxiety. ‘Young people’s brains are developing neural pathways differently,’ she sighs.
Joe is clearly more interested in obtaining a second piece of Ms Anna’s delicious courgette cake (one of your five a day, really, according to the cook) than in renewing his study of anatomical adventures, so she may be worrying prematurely. Maybe it’s just that the Fitzgerald family penchant for contemplating the darkness of human existence is infectious, though The Exit is more hopeful than the salonistas - its most touching element is the alliance achieved between the young and the old, between Rose and the other central character, Catherine, a young, thoughtless woman who lives her life through social media. When she has to, she grows up fast, as Joe and his generation undoubtedly will too.
The Exit, by Helen Fitzgerald, Faber and Faber
Pictures by Ria Fitzgerald