What Doesn’t Kill Us

What Doesn’t Kill Us | Ajay Close

What Doesn’t Kill Us is my top read of the year so far (I know it’s early days, but still…). To say I was gripped is an understatement.

It’s set in the 1970s, in the time and place where the Yorkshire Ripper murders occurred. He is called ‘The Butcher’ in this telling and the identities of the victims are fictional, but there are many similarities in terms of the police investigation and various events. I cannot write about it without comparing it to another wonderful book with the same setting that I read a few months ago: The List of Suspicious Things by Jennie Godfrey. Both are stories about the lives of people living in Yorkshire under the menace of a vicious serial killer.

It was fascinating to read about the same era from two such different perspectives. The List of Suspicious Things is from the point of view of a child who does not really understand what is happening in the community. What Doesn’t Kill Us is from the perspective of the people all too conscious of what is going on: young women, potential victims.

And not just victims of a serial killer. Victims every day of deeply embedded sexism and misogyny. Victims of racism (also a theme in The List of Suspicious Thing). Victims of abusive husbands and partners. And yes, victims of other women sometimes.

Liz is a young police officer. She’s ambitious, but quickly realising that the career prospects for women on the police force are virtually non-existent. It’s a man’s world, where the only attention she’s likely to attract is due to her gender, her body, rather than to her intelligence or skill. However, she does get an opportunity to work as a detective on the case, hunting The Butcher. Her role is largely to get the wife out of the room when she and her superior officer interview potential suspects in their homes [Liz proposes tea and follows the wife to the kitchen]. And nobody pays much attention to her insights.

However, when Liz’s boyfriend beats her up (again), she is taken in by a group of women who share a house. The household and regular visitors include (ex-)prostitutes, feminist activists and various other women seeking refuge from men, and from male violence. It’s essentially an all-women commune. As they are all deeply distrustful of the police, Liz hides the fact that she is a police officer, telling them instead that she serves in the police canteen. With a foot in both camps, therefore, Liz’s loyalties are torn.

Sexism, misogyny and male violence against women are what this novel is all about. Every page of it made me seethe — with anger, indignation and helpless fury. I remember the ’70s. I was in or about Liz’s age at that time. I was reading Fay Weldon and Doris Lessing and Germaine Greer et al back then. While most people will tell you that the world has changed a lot since then, some things have not changed at all. There may be better career prospects for women, in general (I know that I speak from a position of privilege), but sexism and misogny are still with us, and men continue to beat the shit out of women on a regular basis. And yes, there is still a hierarchy of victims, with middle class, white, pretty (straight!), ‘nice’ girls garnering the most sympathy and attention.

The novel also deals with the theme of extremism, raising questions about political activism and to what extent the ends justify the means.

Everyone should read What Doesn’t Kill Us. Especially young women. Women who have been fooled into thinking those days are long gone. They’re not. It’s also highly relevant today in a wider sense, looking beyond gender inequality to social inequality in a society that is today seething and politically destabilised, much like it was in the 70s.

Moving on from the themes to the more technical aspects, What Doesn’t Kill Us is an excellent, totally immersive novel. The pacing is balanced, moving smoothly from intense dialogues to action. The characters leap from the page. The writing is very skillful, revealing characters in a few telling words. It’s insightful. And it’s occasionally very funny.

In short, I loved it.

Thanks to the author, publisher and Netgalley for the ARC. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.

You might also like: The List of Suspicious Things | Jennie Godfrey

To see when I upload new reviews, follow me on Mastodon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *