Review by Debbie Young
Although I've not yet read any of Keith Dixon's other novels, I knew that he was an established and successful crime writer, so was surprised to be sent one of his novels to review as a work of literary fiction in which crime is not a key element.
A further surprise was that its subject matter wasn't the most obvious choice for an Englishman who has retired to France: a former soap opera star, Mai Rose, trying to advance her career in the heady world of showbusiness via a reality TV competition to win a starring role in a new movie.
To be honest, it wasn't my usual choice of subject matter as a reader either, being someone who avoids reality television shows, has never followed a soap opera and is old enough to be the 20-year-old heroine's mother. But being a longstanding book reviewer, I knew that it's good to be enticed out of my comfort zone now and again, so looked forward to discovering how I'd get on with it.
But is it Literary Fiction?
I was also keen to discover how exactly this would turn out to be literary fiction, as the subject matter was more the fodder of trashy celebrity glossy magazines and websites rather than of intelligent literature. Yes, I know that's a sweeping statement and not a little snobbish, but read on to witness me eating my words...
Toying with Expectations
It's almost as if Dixon has playfully chosen what one might assume to be the least likely candidate for introspective psychological development by focusing on a young, green aspiring actress, but at the start of the novel she is already having doubts about the trappings of the celebrity lifestyle. Opting out of what others deem an enviable role to tackle live, intellectual theatre (Ibsen, no less), she struggles to decide what she really wants, whie being pushed and pulled in different directions by her popstar boyfriend, agents, media, her PA and her family, which includes a retired actress mother and a brother traumatised by active military service in the Middle East.
She feels like public property, her private disasters shared on social media and in the tabloid press. When she is reluctantly dragged into a public contest against rival actresses for a plum film role that she feels she's born to play, her life threatens to spin out of control, especially when her own brother appears to turn against her.
Without spoiling the plot, I must say that although some lively action takes place, the most important action is in Mai's head as she tries to work out what she really wants from this acting lark in order to fulfil her innermost needs. So, literary fiction tick #1.
Secondly, the writing is considered and clever, going far beyond what's needed to convey the plot. I once read a how-to book for authors in Vine Leaves' Director Jessica Bell Nutshell series which encouraged authors to ditch mundane, common phraseolgy in favour of more original, creative and evocative terms. Dixon does this well, and many times I encountered phrases that would have made perfect examples in Bell's book.
Crisp, Smart Talk
The dialogue is crisp and smart, with plenty of banter that jumps off the page, as if the book is performing to you. It would make a great script for live theatre or indeed for film, but for its freshness and pace, I'd favour a theatrical rendition. Sometimes the dialogue is almost too neat and clever, and there were the odd moments when it came over as slightly too mannered and calculated to be realistic, or too clever for the speakers in whose mouths the words were put, but it was still fun to read.
The Evidence Before Us
Interestingly, although the novel bears the hallmarks of literary fiction, it also shows strong traces of Dixon's established career as a thriller writer, with surprising twists and turns, and a great sense of timing and pace, with a scene towards the end echoing the classic Poirot "the reason why I've called you all together here tonight" structure. And the ending is terrifically satisfying.
So, despite my initial puzzlement, I now totally understand why the author submitted it to this blog for review, and why the book is classed as litfic on retail sites. It's even been a #1 free download in Amazon's Literary Fiction>Women's Fiction category.
But whatever angle you approach it from, whether you're seeking smart litfic or craving a cracking contemporary novel about 21st century life, I'm happy to recommend it.