Posted on 19th February 2013

By Barbara Cooke

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Killing Daniel

Sarah Dobbs

Killing Daniel, a debut novel by Sarah Dobbs, meditates on domestic cruelty in various forms without ever being mawkish. It is published by Unthank Books, a small independent based in Norwich.

The book is not really about the eponymous Daniel at all. He is dead from the first page, having been lyrically, brutally murdered. The novel opens with a blow-by-blow description of his killing as imagined years later by his would-have-been lover, Fleur, and the almost balletic quality Dobbs assigns to this violence sets the tone for what follows.

Killing Daniel concerns two lives. Fleur and Chinatsu, who are now approaching thirty, met at school but have since lost contact. Chinatsu lives in an exclusive suburb of Tokyo with a highly successful but secretive husband who terrifies her. Meanwhile, in Wigan, Fleur comes home from her McDonald’s shift every night to Marcus, who tells her that all he wants to look at is his ‘tea on the table’. It’s clear that both women are trapped, and the novel charts the unravelling of their oppressive relationships. Both find freedom—but not without experiencing further violence and, in Fleur’s case, confronting an abusive past.

The dual focus of the narrative is its biggest strength, and before the end of Chapter 4 (these are very short chapters) I was so engrossed in Chinatsu’s story that I was frustrated to be back in Wigan, only to be equally annoyed when Fleur’s turn was up and it was time to reconnect with Chinatsu. This made for compelling reading and encouraged me to forgive the odd moment when the perspective jars. Would Fleur, for instance, born and bred in Manchester, really look at her street as a row of ‘Coronation Street houses’? It also troubled me on more than one occasion Fleur tells herself that if her childhood abuser goes on to attack other children it will be her fault; granted, we are in her consciousness at the time, and so this is in no sense the narrative’s judgment, but no other character challenges her notion. If anything, it is reinforced. Perhaps this is Dobbs’ way of commenting on society’s normalisation of victim blame, but if so I could have wished the idea to be given a little more space.

Killing Daniel is a work of arresting clarity that manages to be both realist and fanciful, dealing with ugly matters in beautiful prose. It is urgent, unapologetic and brave, much like its main characters and, I suspect, its author.

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