Two firsts to announce at the start: I’ve never willingly read girlie fiction before, nor have I ever reviewed a book (unless A Level critical essays count). Girlie fiction, if it can be crudely simplified, is fiction written by girls (or an effeminate bloke, I suppose) for girls (or other effeminate blokes, I suppose). Let’s agree for the sake of brevity that it’s girlie stuff written by girls for girls. Or women for women.
And I’d better make a full disclosure – Elizabeth Forbes is a very good friend of mine. She is by no means just a girl, though she pulls off that particular skill quite effortlessly and splendidly. No, by heavens – she is a wife, a mother, a chicken-fancier and also a hard drinking, dice-throwing salmon fisherman, as happy wading up to her ochsters in a treacherous spate river as she is behind the wheel of a fast car or in charge of a pack of rat-killing terriers. I might be over-egging things here, but Lizzie will forgive me. It's what we writers call 'characterisation'.
Nearest Thing to Crazy is an imaginative, but realistic tale. Cruelty and treachery and deceit are dramatic fiction staples, after all - Shakespeare, Dickens, Pasternak and Spillane would all have spent a lot more time down the pub whilst suffering from writer's block without them.
I must be careful not to blunder into a spoiler, but suffice to say that the deceit and treachery in this book are highly credible and well woven into a decent plot. Forbes makes us care about the central character and her developing nightmare. We care quite a lot, in fact, and we wish to find out how her torture ends; you'll gallop through the last two chapters.
We are in rural middle England, both socially and geographically. Make that upper-middle England. Borsetshire, roughly, as Birmingham is evidently within commuting distance. This rural idyll is very much Elizabeth Forbes' country and she knows whereof she writes. Her characters are believable, even ordinary. I could imagine Forbes herself as our central character and narrator in the opening act, though no salmon fishing, dice games or rat killing take place.
All rural communities get frightfully excited by new arrivals, and this one is no different. The attitude of the social circle to the arrival of Ellie is keenly observed. Most are rather feckless and gushing with their welcome, some reserved. We see this all the time in Idle-shire. First impressions, and our central character's observation of others' first impressions, are crucial to the first quarter of the book. If you are not impatient to keep reading by this stage, I fear you may not be the target audience here. An unconvincing take by the salmon, as we fishermen might put it.
Idle and the Idle girls, however, had swallowed the fly good and proper by this point. The pace of the book is excellent, the study of self-doubt compelling and the denouement.... well, get there and find out. All I will say is that someone got off pretty lightly.
Forbes' dialogue is easy and unforced. Every now and again something I detected as a Gilly Cooperism puts its head around the door, but disappears just as quickly. Perhaps I am oversensitive to girlie dialogue; perhaps we chaps are deaf to the language our memsahibs use when conversing among themselves, but Forbes' does have the ring of authenticity about it. There is a little sex and very limited shopping, but this book is emphatically not THAT sort of novel. It's a psychological thriller, a page-turner, a riveting example of how quickly one's sense of security and balance can be overturned.
It probably won't win the Booker, because it comes from a small publishing house and anyway your surname has to be Mantel to win the booker as a female writer (and the shortlist has just been announced). But I urge you to buy it and read it and encourage your friends to do likewise, even the ones whose boundaries are marked by Jeremy Clarkson and Catherine Cookson.
Nearest Thing to Crazy? Pretty close, let's say.