The Exit, a novel of psychological suspense written by Helen Fitzgerald and published earlier this year by Faber, is one of the best contemporary crime novels I've read in quite a while. It's witty, clever and poignant by turns, and I enjoyed it despite the fact that, in the early pages, I took quite a strong dislike to the narrator, a self-absorbed young woman whose ageism was repellent.
It's a mark of Fitzgerald's literary kill that I warmed to her protagonist, just as I did - at least to some extent - to her extremely irritating mother, who is one of those control freaks who is convinced that she knows what is best for other people, even when, transparently, she does not. Control freaks make interesting studies for fiction, and I thought Fitzgerald did a very good job in showing the motivations of Catherine's mother, and the unintended consequences of her actions.
Catherine reluctantly takes a job in a local care home, and there she encounters an 82 year old woman called Rosie, who is convinced that there is dirty work afoot in the home. Since Rosie suffers from dementia, it is not easy to take what she says seriously, and here again Fitzgerald makes telling points about the way we treat people with impaired mental faculties. Of the three main women characters, Rosie was, for me, by far the most consistently appealing.
The mystery element of the story is relatively thin; it is not too difficult to figure out what is going on. But for me, perhaps untypically, that really didn't matter. The story is told in such a gripping way that I had to keep reading - though I'm not suggesting that such a dark novel will be everyone's cup of tea. I've never read Helen Fitzgerald before, and I've never met her, but she really can write. I wouldn't be surprised if this book picks up awards. Yes, it's that good.