Heard about the respectable church leader, the pimp and the middle-aged middle manager? Eighteen year old Billy has. The first – her father – made her homeless for potentially embarrassing him, the second finds it unacceptable that he doesn’t control her, and the third kidnaps her for – he thinks – smirking at him. These pitiful excuses of humanity strut through society – and through the pages of Vanda Symon’s excellent new thriller Faceless. They are desperate for others’ respect. In their own minds they have power – or they should have the power that is rightly theirs – but they hide behind a 18 year old woman and blame her for their actions.
A novel which centres on an exploration of toxic masculinity and of personal agency is not going to be a light read and some of the violence is shocking. But I found myself cantering through the novel. Part of the reason for that is an unusual four-character narrative format, slipping between points of view with varying levels of depth and audience appeal. For Billy, her friend Max and her captor Bradley, the time period in the novel is transformational. The contrasts in their waxing and waning fortunes and mental states carries the reader through the plot at high speed.
It’s a commonality for the street homeless in a city to be dismissed as ‘faceless’ especially by the authorities, and that certainly happens here. Indeed, we learn the back stories of both Billy and Max only over time, as the masks that they have carefully assembled have to be peeled away in order to survive. But Bradley is faceless too: he has what he tells himself is a ‘facade…to a creature of power, a superman, a god’. Symon is making a wider point about power imbalances in society. Most characters in the book are unknown to almost everyone around them. We are challenged to think about our authenticity to those around us.
After all, most of us do have agency: the power to act in our own lives, to listen when others speak and to tell the truth. Billy and Max seem the most truthful, and much of the tension of the novel is about whether they are able to keep enough of their spirit to give it voice. Max is estranged from his family: he needs help from his son Harry but won’t tell him the white lie that would make the reconciliation easier. We learn that the cause of Max’s homelessness is a tragedy that has stripped him of his mental health. It is his determination against all that is thrown at him that makes us believe that redemption may be possible. Determination, that is, and the faceless kindness of strangers. And, in the end, Max and Harry give us other notions of masculinity to balance against the unholy trinity that wish to dominate Billy.
There is a set of redemptions at the end, but not universally so. Does Symon give the reader what they want? Possibly, but in a way that makes us complicit and stops us from walking away complacently. The final chapter reminds us that we can be oblivious to what’s going on around us. And there’s a realisation, too. The church leader, the pimp and the middle manager aren’t the same as each other. Although the third might have done given the chance, only two men had ‘beaten, belittled, accused and humbled’ Billy. The pimp understands his own cynicism. Bradley, in contrast, has found that the facade he sees in the mirror has given him so much power and control that he’s turned on by the thoughts it inspires. His self-awareness is so warped that he can’t even understand the face that’s staring back at him. The violence in this book, appalling as it is, fades away after a few days. Bradley’s face in the mirror does not. That is Vanda Symon’s achievement.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.