The Killing Jar, by Nicola Monaghan, is set in Nottinghamshire. Or rather, it is set in a “shitty brown” (60) estate seemingly in the middle of nowhere, abandoned by the police and any other sign of officialdom so that crime is rife and drug addiction a plague. This county, in the East Midlands, the novel seems to say, is neither north nor south. It is in limbo, in the crease of England. Abandoned. Forgotten. The estate itself is a depressing hovel, closed off from the rest of the world; a jar, Monaghan suggests, in which inhabitants, like insects, fester uselessly until the end.
Kerrie-Ann is a child growing up on this estate, sharing a house with a mother addicted to heroin and a series of wheeler-dealer boyfriends who slowly drag her into their seedy world. By the age of 10, Kerrie-Ann is already running drug-related errands for her so-called guardians, and that’s just the start of it; as we follow her through her teenage years, we meet sickness, death, violence, heartbreak, and a heck of a lot more drug abuse. The novel is miserable, there’s no getting away from it, but it’s also mesmerising.
Most of the time the characters “[don’t] move from the estate” (134-5); everything outside its boundaries that is “foreign” (2) is despised, and yet there is also huge hatred for the neighbourhood’s own “tossers” (25). In fact, anger is the ruling emotion in these parts, and even on the odd occasion that the characters venture off the estate, the dark clouds of their home lives follow them, inescapably. That is not to say that the characters do not try, in vain, to escape, through the abuse of drugs. Kerrie-Ann herself uses them to “remember there was other places away from my house on the close” (10) and to convince herself she “Had wings. Could fly” (39) to them. Whether or not she ultimately succeeds in this endeavour is up to the reader to decide.
One of the biggest measures of ‘place’ in the novel is accent, the differences between which Kerrie-Ann is fascinated by. She recognises the sound of those from northern “mining country”, with intonation “broader than my mam or me” (12), and the “posh voice and fancy manners” (80) that signify an individual’s London roots. In fact, the people on the estate spend a lot of time “making fun of [t]his accent” (112), “add[ing] h’s all over, dropped from other places, and put[ting] on that voice […] trying to sound posh” (34). Kerrie-Ann doesn’t like London, or its “wankers who thought too much of themselves” (144), or who are “too spoiled from being well off” (81). In her experience, southerners only undertake the journey to the estate out of self-interested charity, “some kind of community service” to “shove on [a] job application” (76), or to carry out academic experiments on its inhabitants, as though dissecting scientific specimen in a laboratory.
I’m trying not to give too much of the game away, but Kerrie-Ann is young – no more than a teenager – when massive problems and colossal decisions come her way. The devastation of her childhood years is one of the most noticeable themes in the novel: as a young girl, she plays with “horse-riding Barbie” (38), but only as payment for her drug-running; she watches “the man dressed as a bear explaining to the pink hippo and the orange grin how to share a cake” (36) on television whilst various dirty visitors shoot up in a corner; she plays princesses and fairies “in the middle of Whitwell Park wearing clothes close to falling off […] with holes in them” (226); she combines trips to the children’s playground with her own first forays into drugs. Even as a teenager Monaghan gives constant reminders of her lost childhood; at the beach, she longs to “build a sandcastle, […] a big one with a moat” because she feels “still a kid really” (103). And, like a kid, she is still scared of “ghosts” (141) and “werewolves. Bogeymen” (146) – only now the monsters take the form of drug addicts and wild-eyed vandals. Wrapped in this nightmare, Kerrie-Ann is shown to be constantly swapping between a feeling of adulthood and childhood, a conflict that is exploited by everyone around her, who “called me Kerrie-Ann if they wanted to lecture me […] But if they wanted me to do summat for them it were ‘Kez’ or ‘Kezza’ or even ‘Kerrie-Anna’ in this teasy way” (200).
I think it would be impossible to truly enjoy reading this book. It’s tough-going, miserable and made me utterly uncomfortable. Because of its unrelenting bleakness, it’s not the sort of thing I’d usually choose to read, but I think that attitude simply backs up Monaghan’s suggestion that places like this Nottinghamshire estate, riddled with drugs and seemingly so far beyond help, are so often overlooked and ignored, inconvenient as they are to the middle-classes to ‘sort out’. It’s an extremely intelligent and well-written novel, and its tone reminds me greatly of another East Midlands text, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe, which I loved. Perhaps I’ll get round to comparing the two some time. But for now, an admirable, albeit painful novel is The Killing Jar, to me worthy of a good 3/5 stars.
Next week I’ll be reading Linden Woods by Michael Taylor, which I have high hopes for. Read along with me or join me next week to see what I thought!