Deenie Nash is a teen-aged girl in a cold, gray town in the northern USA. Her brother is a star hockey player, her father teaches at their high school, her divorced mom lives a few towns away. Her circle of friends is fraught with imbalance, the imperfect mixings along the chain, the way the emotions of love and sex intensify at different paces. So far so normal for small-town America. And then Deenie's friend Lise collapses in fits, struck, as if possessed by a mystery illness which, as it spreads, threatens to bring the whole town down into chaos.
The brilliance of Megan Abbott's seventh novel is the way it constantly shifts the ground from beneath you, the way it moves between tropes and genres almost effortlessly. What is The Fever? Is it a teen-aged thriller about the fragile psyches of girls on the brink of womanhood, in a society where sex is out front all the time, but still treated as a dirty secret behind the curtain? Certainly the adults of the earlier generation do nothing to ease their children through this ever-earlier ritual of so-called maturity? Is it a novel about the abuse of modern science? Were vaccinations to help prevent sexual infections responsible for these fits? Is it about mass-hysteria, a Crucible-like dissection of the weakness of adult society in the face of the power and threat inherent in young sexuality? Or is there a supernatural force at work, enacting a horror-movie's babysitter retribution against these girls when they hit sexual activity? At times Abbott seems to be writing a sharply literate take on the 'weird menace' stories from pulp magazines like Strange Tales, playing a very-knowing three-card monte trick with the enthralled reader.
This knowing approach should not surprise anyone who's followed Megan Abbott's career. Her first four novels, Die A Little, The Song Is You (see my review here), Queenpin, and Bury Me Deep were noir fictons, but with a difference; not so much told from a woman's perspective but with the classic sexual tropes of noir reversed. Abbott's first book, The Street Was Mine, was study of masculinity in hardboiled fiction and film noir; her early novels were filling in the other side of the story. It was something new to crime writing, something she made her own.
With her fifth novel, The End Of Everything, she switched gears. It's easy to see where the now-common comparisons with Gillian Flynn arose, especially once the book was named a Richard and Judy selection in Britain. But the story of a disappeared 13-year girl, told from the point of view of her best friend, reads like Flynn crossed with Vin Packer, a deft mix of coming-of-age girlhood, the spectres of paedophilia and incest, and the desperate intensity and doom of Fifties pulp. I wrote then (you can read my review here) comparing the novel to Lolita, about her fascinating obsessions, and I stand by that now. What I've written above may seem overly analytical, but the remarkable thing about Abbott's writing is how much it suggests and stands up to such analysis, and how engrossing it is on its pure story-telling basis. There is a dream-like sense in her prose, a fever-dream we follow through to the end. I marvel at the result. Megan Abbott may be the most original crime writer of the past decade, and she should be treasured by readers of all sorts of fiction.
The Fever by Megan Abbott
Picador, £14.99, ISBN 9781447226321
note; this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimtime.co.uk)