Nina Todd has a boyfriend called Charlie, who likes wild birds. His mother has a caged budgie named Charlie Two. Nina's real name is Karen Wild, and she has a stalker called Rupert, whose real name is Mark, whose sister was killed 14 years ago by Karen. She mistook her for someone else, and explains at the end of this deliciously intricate mystery that when she committed the murder, "it was like it was not me for a minute".
Nobody in Lesley Glaister's 11th novel is quite sure who they are, have been, or can be, which work to seduce and repel us in turn. There are three narrative voices, none of which we trust, since Glaister uses them to undercut each other. "You're all made up," Charlie tells Nina.
The book is spliced between a third-person account of Karen's life - a childhood of foster care, in which she felt "like a rescue dog" - and the cat-and-mouse scenario in which Nina/Karen and Rupert/Mark give equally plausible accounts of their reasons for acting as they do. Both turn to us (their confidants; their confessors) to ask, perhaps disingenuously, what would truly be "good".
These inter-cut narrative strands set up an edgy tension between what characters insist is the case and what Glaister shows to be so. She includes us in the obvious fun she has with "the whole sick business" of the drama she unravels for our pleasure. Nina's pleased not to be "an open book". "What if we'd all been play-acting?" someone asks. A painting is admired, then revealed to be "painting by numbers", which we take as Glaister's playful acknowledgement that thrillers often read as the literary equivalent.
That Nina Todd Has Gone rises above any predictable template to be a novel of individuals, struggling to survive, is down to Glaister's sense of pace, her talent for characterisation, and for detailing her fiction with glimpses of external reality. These ring as true in the dirty realism of Sheffield, with its "tough whiff of exhaust fumes", as in a map "where Scotland dissolves into rags".
The end is satisfactorily ragged - visceral, dark, intense - but not inconclusive about its central concern: the dubious pleasure of self-reinvention. It's a book that lingers, since Glaister's particular talent leaves us as intrigued by her floundering fictional people as we sometimes are by those in what Nina Todd wistfully thinks of as "real life"
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