Rosamund Handler is – or so she would have us believe – a passionate crusader for women’s rights and against the sex industry, paedophilia and drugs.
The novel charts the childhood and adolescence of Jody, daughter of Katy, a Cape Town prostitute, a bright child early affected by violence when a demented client of her mother throws her out of a fifth floor window. Katy, terrified, runs away, but not before having ascertained that her kindly sister, Beth, is to foster and care for the badly-injured little girl. This fails because of the jealousy, meanness and sexual rapacity of Jody’s uncle and two boy cousins. Her next foster placing, with a musty, chilly pair of lesbians, is equally unsuccessful, and Jody finds herself on the street, where an even more violent episode, a ghastly double rape, takes place.
But help is at hand in the form of Maggie, another “working girl” whose descent into prostitution from a toffee-nosed Cape Town suburb resulted from horrible girlhood experiences in the stables with the vicious owner of a posh riding school. Meanwhile Katy falls in with really rotten company, meeting an attractive African American who turns out to be the nastiest kind of pimp, and becoming a pitiful, drug-soaked sex slave in the U.S.
Can Maggie and Katy break free of their backgrounds? Can Jody become a normal teenager? Common sense says a resounding “no” to both. But Handler, short on common sense and long on fairy-tale transformation, has Katy, suddenly highly intelligent and well read, find the resources to escape her captor and return to the daughter she abandoned. Maggie, really an intellectual giant, starts writing sensitive and saleable poetry. Jody does brilliantly at school and the man who threw her out of the window repents and foots all her bills.
This starry-eyed stuff is at odds with much of the rest of the novel, where wodges of polemic alternate with lurid accounts of cruel and perverse sexual practices, written with a relish that is, I think, almost more repellent than the acts themselves.
With ruthless editing, revision and an injection of reality, this could have been a good novel. In its present form, though it’s readable if you suspend disbelief, it’s trash.