It’s good manners to start with a positive, so I think I’ll begin by saying that “Denial” is not absolutely the worst book I’ve ever picked up. That honour unquestionably goes to “the Lair of the White Worm”, which is one of only two books I’ve found myself compeletely unable to finish. (Fortunately my friend Heidi managed to make it over the finish-line, thus saving all of us from having to; you can read her brilliantly acerbic review here.)
Unfortunately, that’s as positive as I can manage to be, because “Denial” is definitely the worst book I’ve ever got to the end of.
I was given this book by my mother-in-law, who has the odd but endearing habit of buying me unexpected sequels as Christmas presents, on the grounds that I have probably already read and digested the first book. In the interests of fairness, I suppose I should accept that my hatred of “Denial” may have come about because I didn’t read “Envy” first, and therefore don’t quite understand what’s going on. Perhaps if you’ve read “Envy”, some sort of literary alchemy takes place which makes “Denial” a brilliant, funny, trashy romp through the world of daytime television and –
Oh, what am I saying; that has nothing to do with it. The problem isn’t that I’m not quite clear what’s going on. The problem is that everything that’s happening is crap. “Hate” is an ugly word, and I don’t enjoy using it; but sometimes we are forced to do things we don’t enjoy.
My hatred of this book begins before the story even begins, when a page headed “Meet The Stars” gives the skinny on the five female presenters of the not-Loose-Women programme, “Girl Talk”. Personally I always think this is a bit of a red flag, since it’s basically the author admitting “All my characters are undifferentiated and hard to keep track of. Here’s a list instead”. I have heard it said that authors of particularly complex epics are the exceptions to this rule, since they have casts of hundreds to manage. Erm, no. No, you’re not. If you think your readers will be unable to cope without a list, you can read the works of JRR Tolkien and Margaret Mitchell, and then go away and think hard about what you’ve done.
Also, this book is not a complex epic.
First on the list is Karen King, who has “a soft-heart [sic] and a weakness for Pop Tarts”. I thought at first this meant she liked sex with X-Factor contestants, but no; it actually means…Pop Tarts. Seriously; her liking for pre-baked toaster pastries is one of the most important things we need to know about Karen. Also, she has a new boyfriend. Important facts to know about new boyfriend are that he’s much younger, sexy, and called Dave. I’d like to say there is more to Dave when you get into the story, but unfortunately there isn’t.
Next up is Julia Hill, who is obsessed with losing her looks, and likes shoes and cosmetic surgery. Apparently these facts are more significant to her character and personality than the fact that she’s been through gender-reassignment surgery, the insultingly banal treatment of which I will come back to later. She’s in a coma following a car-crash. Her waking self does not make me glad she made it through the coma.
Lesley Gold has big hair, a “drop-dead-gorgeous” husband called Dan (like Dave, his name and his cock size are about all we ever get to know) and is “never seen without her lipgloss”. (What, never? This is an actual choice she’s made? To never, ever, ever be seen without lipgloss under any circumstances whatsoever?) It’s not clear why she’s prioritised lipgloss over, say, mascara, or foundation; or whether in an emergency she might choose to put on only lipgloss, leaving the rest of her face bare, or if the lipgloss is merely the signifier of a whole world of immaculate grooming and presentation. It is clear that it’s going to be hard to care.
Faye Cole is pregnant, had an affair with her co-presenter Cheryl West and has, therefore, been left by her husband. In parallel with this, Cheryl West is mostly selling the story of her affair with Faye, which will apparently get her career back on track somehow (words fail me). Finally, James Nolan is their boss and fired them all because, because, well, just because really, and is currently suing a Sunday tabloid for splashing the story that he enjoys dressing as a giant baby for sexual gratification.
That’s the end of the cast list. Great. They all sound lovely. Now we can get on with the story, which is as follows. In the previous book, James Nolan cancelled the show “Girl Talk”. Why, I really can’t say. It sounds as if it was a wild success, and James is the head of Channel 6; so his motives for randomly binning off the programme seem mysterious. However, he did it. The women then took their revenge on him by discovering his sexual kinks and sharing them with the newspapers. Again, I’m struggling to see what they were trying to achieve here, since James liking to be bottle-fed by his lover doesn’t really seem to have much relevance to whether or not their programme makes it back onto the air.
The novel opens on the ensuing right-to-privacy court case, which James wins, and which somehow means that doesn’t go to jail, and he gets to keep his job with added extras, and the five presenters are all unemployable. (Again; no unifying principle to this chain of events, but I simply can’t be bothered to unpick all the logical flaws, since doing so would require me to read the thing again. And frankly, I’d rather eat my own head. However, I would like to ask why the only two possible outcomes from this court-case are “James gets to keep his job and all the women lose theirs” versus “James goes to jail and all the women get their jobs back”, when the central issue of the case is the right to privacy.) About two-thirds of the book are about the fall-out from this, with each of the women’s lives unravelling in a strangely predictable and deeply unlovely manner.
Karen eats a lot of Pop Tarts, puts on some weight and becomes convinced that sexy Dave is having an affair. Julia wakes up from her coma to discover she has sustained terrible injuries to her feet and may never walk again, and far more importantly will never again be able to wear sky-scraper heels. She runs away to the country and passes the time being pointlessly spiteful to the other women, and lusting after some random gardener person who inexplicably keeps bringing her moussaka. Faye goes into labour in the courtroom, has her baby, wonders what happened to her marriage (some might say it collapsed because she made the choice to have an affair, but maybe that’s just me), and becomes an alcoholic. Cheryl has no agent, and wants an agent, and cannot find a decent agent. And hangs around a lot of agent’s offices. And fancies women. But not her prospective agents. Finally, Lesley obsesses over whether it’s okay to have a career without the other four women, and has sex with her husband.
There is no mutual support, and no female solidarity, and no-one helps anyone else with their problems. Then, when we’ve sufficiently established how hateful and desperate everyone is, there’s a mahoosive Channel Six party, and Someone Kills James. And it could have been any of the five women. Dum dum duuuuummmmm…..
The rest of the book is the unravelling of Who Did It and the knitting up of everyone’s personal lives. This can work (Jilly Cooper did a decent job of it in “Score!“), but only if you like and / or care about the characters. Since none of the characters are likeable, this trick does not come off. Reading this book actually made me sad and angry. I felt like I was a worse person by the end than I was at the beginning.
There’s so much that I hate about this book, but in the interests of putting some form and structure to my foaming-at-the-mouth rant, I’ll try and organise it under useful headings. First, I hate its nasty, reductive view of relationships. In Denial-world, relationships seem to work on a points system. You score points for being thinner than your partner, younger than your partner and better paid than your partner, and lose points for being fatter, older or poorer. You’ll notice that there are zero points awarded for shared tastes and pleasures, shared history, family ties, common goals, sexual chemistry, promises made and kept, mutual support mutually given or, you know, anything else that makes a proper, functioning relationship. I hate that no-one in the book ever communicates with their partner about what’s worrying them, and always assumes the worst of the people they apparently love.
Next, I hate the book’s portrayal of the non-hetero characters. Julia, who is trans-gendered, is written as a sort of horrible screeching drag-queen, obsessed with shoes and glitz, spiteful and horrid and mean. Thus missing the point of the drag-queen persona: it’s a performance. Real people, of any variety, are not like drag-queens any more than they are like pantomime dames. I hate that whoever wrote this book (I seriously doubt it was Coleen Nolan) spent no time whatsoever learning about gender dysmorphia, or the process of gender-reassignment, or the agonising physical and mental journey the sufferer endures, or the physical limits of what the gender-reassignment operation can achieve.
Equally, I hate the portrayal of Cheryl. Cheryl is gay, and her sexual orientation is apparently the sum total of all she is, and all she gets to be. Her sexuality is the beginning, middle and end of everything that happens to her in the book. I hate the moment when Faye, regretting her affair with Cheryl, looks at the androgynously-styled photo of her ex-lover and wonders (and I’m quoting) “how she could ever have fancied that“. At this point, I began praying for Faye’s downfall and destruction, because no-one, ever, anywhere, in any context, should get away with describing a fellow human being as “that”. I sort of want to accuse this book of homophobia, but then it’s equally horrible in its portrayal of straight women.
I hate how pointlessly shallow everyone is, and yet how even the ultimately-not-very-satisfying pleasures of shallowness are absent. It’s normal for chick-lit books to have an above-average quotient of shoe-lust and handbag-porn. But it’s not normal for even the chick-iest book to be filled with characters whose entire inner world revolves around their appearance. Everyone judges, and is judged, by how much they weigh, how well their dress fits, how well their hair is styled and how expensive their shoes are. Even though they all have money to splash on frivolities and lots of parties to go to, no-one seems to take any pleasure in anything. I hate this book for its lack of joy.
I hate how much the person who wrote this book appears to hate their own work, and everyone contained within it. It’s badly plotted and badly written. It insults straight women, and gay women, and trans-gendered women, and the fetish community, and men with older partners, and men with younger partners, and men in general, and older people, and younger people, and all people everywhere. There are literally no characters in this book who it’s possible to feel warmly towards. It feels lifeless and mechanical, like one of those machine-generated porn novels from “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that this book actually was written by a machine.
Most of all, I hate the contempt this book’s existence expresses towards us, its readers. I’d love to be able to end with a dramatic flourish – “How did this novel ever get published???!!!” – but the fact is, I know perfectly well. It got published because a famous female celebrity put her name to it, which in turn persuaded enough of us to buy it for it to become a paying proposition. It’s not the publisher’s fault; they’re just satisfying an audience they know fine and well is out there. We have brought this horror upon ourselves. This honestly makes me question the future direction of the human race a little bit.
Most of the time, it’s really not in me to send books to charity shops, even when I’m sure I’ll never read them again – or put them in the bin, even when they are held together with sellotape and wishful thinking. I hang onto my books until they’re practically crumbling into dust and I’m more or less reading them from memory. But when I look at my copy of “Denial” sitting on my dining-room table, I actually wonder if it would be so very, very wrong to burn it.
Just this one book. Just once.
If you’ve read all this and you still want to read “Denial”, let me know, because I’d be delighted to send you my copy. Alternatively, if you absolutely must buy your own in order to feel complete, you can get it in paperback from Amazon for £4.58, or as a Kindle edition for £4.35. But if you do, I may never want to speak to you again.