Speaking at a recent crime writing event at London’s Goldsboro Books, Araminta Hall took issue with the idea that protagonists in fiction need to be likeable. People are complex, she said. Even nice people aren’t likeable all the time, and a character who’s simply likeable isn’t very interesting – neither for the writer nor the reader.
Reading her latest book ‘Our Kind of Cruelty’, I can see exactly what she means. The story is told by Mike, who’s obsessed with his ex, V (short for Verity) and the psychosexual game they used to play. Rather like the anti-hero Paul in Sabine Durrant’s ‘Lie With Me’, there isn’t anything particularly likeable about Mike. He’s selfish, controlling, thuggish and delusional. And that’s before things get really nasty.
But what Hall proves beyond reasonable doubt is that an unlikeable character can be compelling. Mike’s back story offers some clues as to why he’s the way he is, but what really draws us in is the twisted way he sees things – lacking in social skills, reading signals where there are none, taking umbrage at the vaguest hint of a slight. He’s a narcissist and a scary one, but he’s also emotionally damaged and all too human. His idea of love is a form of madness – but who hasn’t felt at least a hint of that madness at some point?
We may not like him but we recognise him.
Hall takes us inside his head and shows us the horrors lurking there, without ever reducing him to a mere monster. This is an arresting character study in wounded male ego and she pulls it off with aplomb, even evoking sympathy when you least expect it. I binge-read this book in two sittings. I doubt I’ll read a more addictive thriller this year.