‘Alice. Vic. Kaya.
Three women, three lives that come crashing down’.
Morgan McCarthy’s new novel, Strange Girls and Ordinary Women, tells the dark, twisting tale of three women whose lives entwine in surprising and devastating ways. Told in the third person, the narrative moves consecutively from each character – Alice, Vic and Kaya – at different moments in time, enabling the characters to move in and out of each others lives seamlessly.
Alice is an ‘ordinary’ middle-aged mother and wife. Married to Jasper, the man she fell in love with at university, she has settled down to a life of middle-class luxury. Relying solely on her husband’s high income as a GP in a small suburban practice, Alice wiles away her time volunteering at the local charity shop three times a week and exercising her degree in archeology by decorating her house with the professionalism of an interior designer – a vague dream she once had of becoming. Once an undergraduate with a healthy sexual appetite or, more accurately, she just ‘didn’t see the point in saying no’, Alice has given up her days of noncommittal sex in favour of traditional gender roles under the stifling institution of marriage:
‘She agreed to his proposals, she thinks, later in bed. It is past three in the morning and she has been woken by the mournful cry of the front door, un-oiled metal on metal. She agreed to be won. Since then all the asking has been carried out by Alice (‘What would you like for dinner?’ ‘What time will you be home?’): many, many small questions, now that the big questions have been settled’.
Strange Girls and Ordinary Women, Morgan McCarthy, Pg.22
However, when Alice begins to notice her husband’s erratic behaviour and ridiculously half-hearted attempts at lying, she decides to follow him. Unsurprisingly he is having an affair with another woman but, instead of feeling betrayed, Alice’s imagination is captured by this woman who is barely older than a teenager. This woman has a natural, stark beauty that shines through her apparent working class beginnings and gives nothing away – ‘She is cowed not only by the girl’s beauty but her credibility; the purity of being tough and poor. She is the real thing’.
Vic lives in Madeira, an island off Portugal – ‘It is the floating garden, the island of no-time’. Although born in England, she cannot remember her childhood in that far-away, foreign land. Madeira or more specifically, her parents hotel – the Quinta Verde, is her home and always has been, but it has been feeling lonely since everyone she has grown up with has moved away. Left with only her increasingly stressful job at trying to keep the hotel running, her trenchant Catholic faith and the haunting memories of Kate, her childhood friend, Vic is elated to hear that an old family friend will be returning to Madeira. Michael is, somewhat, a local celebrity in their small hometown. Handsome, intelligent and kind, Vic is subconsciously attracted to him. But as he returns the novelty of having him around quickly wears off as he spends more and more time with the magnetic and mysterious Estella. Trusting her gut instinct, Vic knows that there is something deeply disturbing about Estella and though she can’t quite put her finger on what it is, she is determined to find out.
Kaya is a young woman just finishing her A Levels with straight A grades. Living in a single-parent household with an alcoholic mother, Kaya knows there is, financially, no way she can go to university to study Philosophy. After confronting her mother’s boyfriend and scared for her life, Kaya moves into her friend’s flat. The quickest and most lucrative way she can support herself is by auditioning for the local strip-club her friend also works for. Knowing that she ‘meets the predefined criteria of a specific category of female (albeit one that exists only in the male imagination)’, Kaya uses this to her advantage and creates an alter-ego, Star. As the description of Strange Girls and Ordinary Women states, Kaya is a survivor, and she’s determined to find a way out of her miserable world.
‘The problem is that Star is designed to preoccupy the mind. She means to be watched and wanted. She could have been a model, but she is a stripper. She could have dated someone her own age – gone to the cinema, held hands in parks, played spin the bottle – but she prefers slipping in and out of hotel rooms with Jasper. She has rejected the easy equality of her peers for the older man’s heavy love, his grave declarations of intent. Star is not an ordinary creature; she is a woman seen often in film and fiction but rarely in life (though which came first, the art or the living woman, Alice doesn’t know): a femme fatale. Alice thinks about her own cinematic self and finds it depressingly simple to identify. A deceived wife. A hausfrau on the edge. A very ordinary woman, with moments of desperation’.
Strange Girls and Ordinary Women, Morgan McCarthy, Pg.192
Somehow these three vastly different lives come together in a devastating and powerful tale of female perceptions, intuition and survival. I love how McCarthy doesn’t pit these women against each other as enemies but instead gives each character the space to develop and grow. Neither Alice, Vic or Kaya are one-dimensional. They each deny, question and challenge what it means to be ‘strange young girls’ or ‘ordinary women’ in a way that is varied and multifaceted, showing that there is no one way of being a woman.
‘Sartre’s voyeur only understands he is a voyeur because he has been seen by another person: without the other person’s gaze there is no consciousness of the self – no ‘For Itself’ – and so, because self consciousness is dependent on the Other, the foundation of the self is outside the self. […] She knows what the Other would have her be and knows, without knowing exactly what she is, that she is not what they think’.
Strange Girls and Ordinary Women, Morgan McCarthy, Pg.255-6
Despite the stereotypical roles they are cast into by the men in their lives, Alice, Vic and Kaya are acutely aware of, and hostile to, these gender constraints. Alice knows how she will be viewed when the news of her husbands infidelity comes out. She knows that she will be seen as the deceived wife – ‘A haufrsau on the edge’. Vic is constantly uncomfortable in her own skin, always conscious of the ‘unfamiliar audience gazing’ at her and all-too-painfully aware that she is in love with Michael, albeit a ‘childish, dogged sort of love’. Kaya understands how her body can be used as a commodity, how people see her gender and sexual appeal above all else. And, as Vic starkly puts it, understanding all this ‘can’t, in the end, make it any less painful’.
Strange Girls and Ordinary Women is an intriguing and suspense-ridden story that is about so much more than a tale of ‘the Other woman’. It explores the outer and inner appearances and experiences of women from different walks and stages of life and shows that they don’t have to follow a predetermined script that applies to their particular gendered stereotype.
I found McCarthy’s writing enchanting, the descriptive language was beautifully fluent and, without giving too much away, I have never been more satisfied with an ending before.
Thanks to Tinder Press, via Bookbridgr, for a review copy.