Review: Viral, Helen Fitzgerald

This was a Netgalley read, the title itself giving away the subject matter.  Where once the word ‘viral’ might have implied a disease outbreak, now it means a video, photo or meme that sweeps across the Internet with alarming speed, often trampling over its point of origin with startling cruelty.  Beginning with the rather arresting opening line, ‘I sucked twelve cocks in Magaluf’, this story is very much inspired by true events, as a holidaying British girl did twice that in the summer of 2014.  Viral imagines what it would be like to be right at the eye of this storm, alternating the perspective between the girl herself – Soo Oliphant-Brotheridge – and her mother Ruth, a presiding judge in the West of Scotland.  This was a very long way off being a perfect novel but it did nonetheless offer some poignant reflections on the modern media age and what it would be like to stumble into such a storm as this one.  In centuries gone by, mistakes could be made – public ones – but the international total humiliation doled out by Twitter, Instagram and Facebook is a new phenomenon peculiar to our own age.  I am a blogger, I enjoy the Internet and all the avenues for creativity and communication which it affords me, but I fear it and I fear how little we understand what it is capable of.

Soo is the eldest daughter of Ruth and Bernie, adopted from South Korea.  A month later, they discovered that they were expecting their daughter Leah.  Flash forward eighteen years, the two girls are total extremes.  Soo is the good girl; clever, athletic, angelic.  Leah is the drinker, the promiscuous one, the no-hoper.  Ruth and Bernie only consent to Leah going on holiday to Magaluf with friends if Soo will volunteer to go too to keep an eye on her.  Drinking and recreational drug use ensue and somehow or other, Soo finds herself doing the deed which makes her famous and all of it for a free Jager-Bomb.  There were a number of things about the set-up which irritated me but the stinker was the emphasis on how inexperienced Soo was, having only got to second base with her boyfriend two weeks before jetting off to Magaluf.  Even the novel’s blurb simpers that she was ‘virginal’.  Even had she not been so, she would not have deserved what happened next – if it had happened to Leah, surely we should not have been expected to have less sympathy?  If that is the case, then the novel’s objective becomes very confused – in attempting to cast ‘the Magaluf Girl’ in a human light, but then scrubbing her clean of any human flaws.

The most successful moments in Viral come from Ruth, particularly her teeth and claws fury at what has befallen her daughter.  There is the horrifying litany of consequences as Soo’s university offer is withdrawn and Ruth’s career is pulled awry as defendants sneer at her from the dock; hard-nosed professional reduced to being ‘Magaslut’s Ma’.  Meanwhile, Soo wanders the globe, attempting to both escape her infamy and to achieve closure on her personal identity.  Although it may be predictable that she is waylaid by a journalist, much of her story seems rather improbable – she was a hard character to connect with, her perfection making her lapse in judgment rather unbelievable.  I felt as well that the resolution was very weak; it would have been far more interesting to see how Soo managed to pick up the threads of her life again, to see her realise her ambitions, rather than what amounted to a deus ex machina.

No matter what the book’s faults though, there is no doubt that it was an incredibly compelling read.  It was one of those novels that I truly hated to put down, whipping it out whenever I had a spare few seconds – waiting outside the petrol station for my boyfriend to get cash out, in the queue at the supermarket check-out, waiting for the toast to pop for breakfast.  This is not a deep read and does not quite deliver in terms of offering an insight into Internet-shaming, but for pure escapism, Viral is a resounding success.

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Viral by Helen Fitzgerald
Published by Faber & Faber on January 1st 1970
Genres: 21st Century, Fiction, General, Horror, Suspense, Young Adult
Pages: 272

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