‘The Murders Of Molly Southbourne’ by Tade Thompson

A bold novella that, despite its splatter-punk attire and childhood narrative, is neither a horror story nor a coming of age story, but a ruthlessly wrought thought-experiment, soaked in blood.

This was a beautifully written and deeply strange novella. It started in bloody chaos that challenged me to live with not understanding what was going on, to let the strangeness and blood gush over me as I sifted it for meaning.

Before I could make sense of the situation, I was dropped into a retrospective narrative of childhood. This should have been more familiar territory but it was not. It was a childhood bounded by simple but inscrutable rules and filled with violent death and unacknowledged secrets. Of course, in some ways, all childhoods are bounded by the inscrutable and filled with unacknowledged secrets held both the adults and the child. Part of the power of this strange story is how close it is to normality.

The journey to unlocking the rules and secrets of Molly Southbourne’s childhood and their consequences led me back to the start, a place I now understood, and then offered one final surprise.

It was a stimulating journey of the kind that classic Science Fiction short stories are made of: relentlessly pursuing the consequences of an original idea. Despite its splatter-punk attire and childhood narrative, this was neither a horror story nor a rites of passage, coming of age story of the kind that builds empathy for the young person coming to adulthood. Rather it was a ruthlessly wrought thought-experiment, soaked in blood.

I realise now that Tade Thompson had signposted his intent with the ‘Epigraph’, a quote from an eighteenth-century psychologist that I should have paid more attention to. It reads:

‘With each failure, each insult, each wound to the psyche, we are created anew. This new self is who we must battle each day or face extinction of the spirit.

Writings on the Natural History of the Mind
Theophilus Roshodan, 1789

One of the big debates in psychology is the nature of the self, sometimes seen as reflexive self-defence mechanism conjured by need and sometimes as the heart of cognisance.

‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’ takes a look at the concept of self in a very dramatic, very physical way. I think Tade Thompson uses it as an experiment to answer the question ‘What if, every time we bled, we were confronted with a new self that wanted to replace us?

He looks at how we would react to the new selves, at how we would survive at how the new selves would change us and whether the struggle to sustain the self that is constantly challenged and constantly changing, is worth it.

I think it’s a sign of his skill that I was so wrapped up the story while reading it, that I only understood that it was a thought experiment when the experiment was over and the results were in.

I think that’s because Tade Thompson loves playing with words as much as he loves playing with ideas. He virtually declares as much when he attributes this passion to the deadly, isolated, constantly under threat Molly:

Molly loves reading. Words used to be homework, a chore, but books make words do magic tricks. She loves that writers make words their servants and bend them to their will.

I enjoyed the story for its boldness and its matter-of-fact approach to survival through violence. Molly’s parents were a great invention. They create everything Molly is an yet have almost nothing in common with her and almost no understanding of who she is. Tade Thompson takes this common situation and uses it to amplify the strangeness in his story.

I think the ending is one that will either be loved or hated. I liked it. It seemed to me to be a result of the experiment that was credible even though it was unexpected. It also seemed a brave way for a writer to end a story. Of course, being a writer, Tade Thompson also managed to make the ending a great opening to a new story. Some may see that as a cliff-hanger ending. I think we plunged madly over the edge of the cliff and are now surveying the wreckage and looking for survivors.

Tade Thompson has written a second novella, ‘The Survival Of Molly Southbourne’, which starts where ‘The Murders Of Molly Southbourne’ ends. I’ll be reading it soon. I’m hoping to find that, unlike the ‘Murderbot’ novellas which felt like a novel served in slices, the next novella will conduct a new experiment. I’m intrigued to know what that will be.

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