V for Violet by Alison Rattle
This is Alison Rattle’s fourth YA novel, and it’s a bit of a departure, the other three having been set in the Victorian era. I read and reviewed her second, The Madness, for Shiny New Books (see here), and I enjoyed the doomed romance between classes which turns to obsession a lot. She’s moved to the 1960s for V for Violet, and I’ll let Violet introduce herself…
I was born above our fish and chip shop on Battersea Park Road, at the exact moment Winston Churchill came on the wireless to announce the war was over.
Nobody saw me come into the world. Nobody saw me land on the newspapers that had been laid out under Mum’s bottom and across the mattress to protect it from stains. Even Mum missed my birth, she was so busy cheering along with the rest of them. …
Violet they called me.
V for Violet.
V for Victory. (p3/4)
Now it’s 1961 and Violet is 16. She works in the chippy in the evenings after school and weekends. She’s getting fed up of smelling of chip fat, getting ready to spread her wings a little. She’s especially fed up of her mother still worshipping her brother Joseph, who went missing in action during the war. Violet had asked her grown-up sister Norma about it:
‘You were a mistake, Violet,’ she said as she backcombed her hair. ‘You were conceived out of despair and grief.’
It’s hard being the replacement for a hero. I never met my brother Joseph. But I hate him all the same. (p8/9)
What’s more, her best friend Jackie has started a new job, making new friends and Violet feels forgotten – until one night a bloke comes into the chippy:
I stare at his hair. It’s dark and long with a waxed quiff that falls into his eyes. Blue eyes that are laughing at me. And cheekbones like James Dean. (p44)
Violet likes everything about this Rocker, hoping he’ll return for more chips soon. London may not have started swinging yet, but it is rocking.
Violet had spotted her Mum tarting herself up a little to go out, and followed her into the Park one day, seeing her sitting on a bench with a younger man. Violet is secretly outraged. However, he turns out to be her long-lost brother who had gone AWOL all along, and couldn’t come home until now to avoid prison. Violet is suspicious of Joseph and his motives. Her mum is overjoyed, her father is finding it hard to accept that his son was a deserter. Things are tense all round. Thank goodness for Beau.
Meanwhile girls are going missing, and found murdered near the old Pump House in the Park. The girls are urged not to go out alone. Violet persuades Jackie to let her go dancing with her new friends, but she leaves early as it’s clear they don’t really want her there. It is Beau, the Rocker, on his motorbike outside that takes her to a coffee stall at Chelsea Bridge where they meet. Violet is smitten, with Beau, with the idea of becoming a Rocker, wearing a leather jacket and jeans, riding pillion – she forgets Jackie.
She is shocked to her core when Jackie is the next victim of this serial killer, murdered that night when she walked home alone from the dance. Of course she feels guilty too and Jackie’s mum blames her for abandoning her daughter, although Jackie had already abandoned Violet that night. Violet has an inkling though. She has an idea who the murderer is … she’ll need to be careful to prove her suspicions.
While the plot of this novel doesn’t offer anything new to the murder mystery genre, the author has managed to add another dimension by making the stranger in town Violet’s long-lost brother.
What Rattle does really well though is to give us the sense of the period, capturing the lives of teenaged working class London girls entering the world of work in the early 1960s. They may have to work hard – be it in the factory or the chippy, but then they party hard in the dance hall and coffee bar.
Violet does have a chip (sorry!) on her shoulder. Her sense of being ignored and rejected, by everyone except Beau, especially once Joseph returns, is very evident. As our narrator, she is strongly drawn; she’s sometimes irritating, self-obsessed, but you can forgive her that. She’s always doing herself down, so it was hard at first to see what Beau sees in her, but as her independent spirit takes flight, she is more fun.
Given that most of the book happens in Battersea, I wondered why the cover features Brighton, that quintessential British seaside resort and southern home of the dirty weekend. I needn’t have worried, we relocate later on and the climax happens there – but the echoes of Greene’s Brighton Rock are absent (well, only insofar as the 2010 film remake moved the action to the early 1960s).
Having taken her time to establish Violet’s situation and then introducing Joseph and Beau into the narrative, the tension does mount in the second half of the novel. There are twists and turns before we find out the murderer’s identity – I had no idea who until all was revealed. I did feel a little cheated by this, I’d have liked more clues but, as a solution, it does work.
While certain issues that crop up in the novel are rather skirted over, you do have to remember that the narrator is only sixteen. We only have Violet’s understanding of the world and she is young and naive at the same time as pushing at the boundaries she encounters. The period feel was absolutely great though, and I could see Violet morphing into Marianne Faithfull (right) as the Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) in years to come. (8/10)
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Source: Publisher – Thank you
Alison Rattle, V for Violet (Hot Key, 2016) paperback original, 304 pages.