‘Sweetpea’ by C. J. Skuse – highly recommended… if you have a strong enough stomach.

‘Sweetpea’ caught me by surprise, partly because the publisher’s summary left me with the impression that I was going to read something light. clever and playfully dark and partly because I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it before.

This is a book that’s brave enough to be truly dark without being even slightly exploitative. The story, told in the first person, feels brutally, invasively honest. It’s an unedited, unashamed, raw feed from a woman who is unhappy, lonely angry and who needs to sate her desire to kill on a regular basis.

The main character, Rhiannon, is not a Hannibal Lector, taking decadent delight in his own cleverness at killing or a Dexter Morgan, following a moral code to constrain his ‘dark passenger’. She’s broken. She knows she’s broken. She knows it’s not her fault and she lives with it. Which means she does her best to fake being normal and to tamp down her anger and she only kills a tiny fraction of the people that she puts on her daily kill list.

I started ‘Sweetpea’ expecting a black comedy and there were things in it that made me laugh. Until I started to understand that what I thought was deadpan delivery was the unvarnished truth.

In the beginning, I found myself empathising with Rhiannon’s situation and some of her reactions. She’s an introvert who knows that her low need for social inclusion will mark her as odd so she fills the space where friends should be with PICSOs (People I Can’t Scrape Off) a group of women whose self-obsession, vulgarity, habitual hedonism and absence of any thought beyond booze, boys and babies is a social rash Rhiannon constantly wants to scratch. . She’s in a job which she’d like to excel at but where her contribution is undervalued and where she sees her colleagues as a collection of faults and irritations. Her relationship with her partner is part habit, part inertia and part camouflage.

I’m an introvert myself and I initially saw Rhiannon as an introvert suffering from having to live in an extrovert’s world and pretend to like it. I enjoyed some of her caustic descriptions of her frustrations and what she’d like to do to the people who cause them. Except I don’t feel the need for protective camouflage and I began to wonder why Rhiannon was so keen not to draw attention to the things that made her different, that made her her.

By the time I finally understood the reality of what Rhiannon does and how it makes her feel, I felt somehow complicit with her choices. I couldn’t muster any moral outrage. Nor could I really cheer in support of her actions. I knew her better than I would ever have wanted to and I couldn’t hate her. I knew she was damaged. I knew how the damage had happened and when. I knew that she could never be normal and that she was at least trying to show some restraint.

As the violence escalated and the body count mounted, the author added a new element: hope that everything might work out, that Rhiannon could be, if not normal, then at least less driven by rage.

But, by then, too many things were in motion that couldn’t be stopped. There was too much blood under the bridge and I couldn’t see a way out.

The plot was clever and intense, just like Rhiannon. I found the ending, which was open-ended without being a cliffhanger, strangely satisfying because it allowed me to sustain my ambivalence about Rhiannon.

‘Sweetpea’ was an extraordinary reading experience made even more intense by Georgia Maguire’s excellent narration. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

C.J. Skuse is an English writer, based in Somerset. 

She is the author of the Young Adult novels Pretty Bad Things, Rockoholic, Dead Romantic, Monster and The Deviants and the adult crime thrillers The Alibi Girl and the Sweetpea series: Sweetpea, In Bloom and Dead Head

Sweetpea has been optioned by See Saw Films and is in production with Sky Atlantic. C.J. is currently working on books four and five in the Sweetpea series.

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