Keep Her Sweet, by Helen Fitzgerald – book review

I’m a sucker for a happy ending. I like resolution and I like redemption. Keep Her Sweet, the new novel by Helen Fitzgerald, turns that all upside down. Fitzgerald takes the dream of a warm, loving, mutually-sustainable family life and shows that it is dependent on the people within it: good luck to you when your family members are delusional, sociopathic or have addictions or mental illness. Fitzgerald presents us with a cast of characters who are all pretty dislikable, but won’t let us look away for a moment: we’re drawn in even though we know everyone – maybe us included – is headed for disaster. You will canter through this psychological thriller: hooked even you know you shouldn’t be.

Front cover of Keep Her Sweet by Helen Fitzgerald

Live. Laugh. Love. That’s the motto of so many families, presented and displayed in homes throughout the land. We wouldn’t put it past at least one of the Moloney-Singhs to have bought the slogan, painted on tasteful driftwood and picked up at the garage sales that everyone seems to hold at the drop of a hat. The family’s history is based on laughing – patriarch Andeep is a mediocre comic whose turn once attracted spouse Penny. Penny hopes that by building a new and empty nest with Andeep, love will return. But by the end, we’re wondering how many of them will live.

Everyone is surrounded by stuff which has been accumulated in life whether accidental or through someone else or with an aim to do something or other with it. You could have a potter’s wheel or a much-loved but easily disposed of mirror. The Moloney-Singhs have decades of small moments that have accumulated and festered with toxic effect. They are all invested in the family unit – to a greater or lesser extent – but to have any chance of individual survival they need to get away. Thing is, the outside world is not much better. Asha ends up part of a terrible religious cult that warps her mind. Camille’s kind-of boyfriend just wants to get her onto drugs. Penny’s brother is part of an effective family unit, but he’s cold.

Joy, a therapist hired to bring healing, wouldn’t stand a chance even if she were any good at the role. She’s distracted by her own sister whom she’d love to visit, and by her addicted daughter whose treatment and lawbreaking has burned through the small amount of Joy’s assets that have withstood her late husband’s disastrous investments. At least when she is forced to live in a mobile dentist surgery, the pneumatic chair is comfortable. But Joy has a vision for what family is all about. She daydreams about the ideal life with her sister or with her daughter. Frankly, she just wants to go full mama bear and no one will really let her. She can’t use a chemical toilet but she’s just the person you need to dispose of a dead body.

The plot is ludicrous but in some way believable. It’s Antti Tuomainen but somehow believable. It’s dark but somehow not. It takes us to terrible places and when we think we’ve escaped unscathed we’re left with a sobering truth: that dreams and hopes and illusions about our lives may not be enough. And the ending: it’s cathartic and it’s satisfying. Something that a saccharine finish could never be.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and Anne Cater for the invitation to be part of the blog tour.

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