She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall – 2021

Our protagonist is a woman in her late thirties, whose name we know only from the sleeve notes – Alice. We learn through the novel that Alice has had a not-too-unusual upbringing, that she is a very bad judge of situations, and that as a child she had an invisible friend called Simp – the kind of friend who advises eating all the chocolates, or burning down the house. Simp has returned – Alice’s boyfriend has left her, her best friend Amy is starting to drift away, and Alice is facing the question that we all face: “Yes, it was a mountain of shit and it was avalanching down on our heads. But what was I to do about it?”

Alice lives in a future adjacent to ours – there is a king, there are only two universities left in Aotearoa, water is severely rationed. The inevitable result of the inability of wealthy nations to tackle the climate crisis has led to world-wide disaster. The New Zealand Government has been almost ruined by the last pandemic and has agreed to accept huge numbers of ‘wealthugees’ – those privileged enough to escape their own countries, and too selfish to use their wealth to help anyone but themselves. The population of Aotearoa has increased by half a million in the last eighteen months.

There is rioting in Palmerston North, people are being killed, the wealthugees are ‘assimilating’ by creating a parallel Aotearoa and bunkering down in it – extolling the culture, environment, and safety of their manufactured paradise, deforesting to build ideal fenced forests. The Government has agreed to sell a piece of DOC land in the Wairarapa to developers – ancestral Māori land. The developers are the same company responsible for the destruction of Juukan Gorge in Australia, and who use child labour to mine for cobalt for iPhones in the Congo.

We first meet Alice as a bored employee in a university enrolment department, where she has worked for fifteen years. “I’m not an activist, I’m an observer”. She acts out her boredom by spilling sauerkraut on people, basing her right to criticise others on her confidence in her own superiority: “The power imbalance was like sniffing petrol fumes – bad but so good.” She fantasises around her own compulsion to hurt people. She is surrounded by students from “the most anxious generation the world had produced”, she works alongside new employees who want to quickly advance to positions of power. She sits stagnating in the middle, finding it impossible to do small talk in the time of apocalypse. She is one point off being a genius, and lives with the albatross of unfulfilled potential hanging around her neck.

“This was the world now, a living cartoon”, Alice is at once obsessed with eye makeup and the well-being of the plant growing through the crack in the bench top in her grotty house. She lives downstairs from her estranged mother, separated by a sheet of plywood – they communicate using Morse code. Her friend Amy, whose life she prides herself on saving, is an overachieving mother of three, a prolific fruit preserver, and exercise fanatic. Amy’s husband has become involved in the Wairarapa bunkered community development – an association Alice cannot fathom.

Then Alice meets an unusual wealthugee, Pablo, who wants to enrol in the long-gone Russian Literature course at university. They become involved, Alice not sure if she should worry about his tendencies to strangulation or saying things like “We’re going to kill them all”. It appears Simp was paying attention during Alice’s abandoned psychology studies, and she provides a soundtrack of possible diagnoses. Alice is more sociopath than psychopath, there’s a good amount of laziness to her condition. Then Pablo’s fifteen-year-old daughter arrives. She is like Alice but over the threshold of genius – Erika is aware and active. Alice finally gets the trigger she needs to develop a real personality – but “Hang on a minute, you never said anything about bombs”.

She’s a killer is a brilliant analysis of the present condition of cognitive dissonance. All those who pretend things are normal when they are patently not; hanging onto things known to cause others damage, whilst expressing deep concern for the damage done to others – “No one wanting to take the blame.”

Alice mentions starting to read Anna Karenina from the epigraph, and the epigraph to She’s a killer is a key, Jung defining fate as an exterior expression of an unconscious inner situation. Alice’s lack of empathy and lack of urge to fulfil her potential can be seen as the general malaise that allows global crises. For much of the book the urge to make a difference is framed as pointless and unnecessary – and then Alice starts to wake up: “… it felt like I’d been asleep for a very long time.”

It might sound like She’s a killer is a weighty read, but it is very funny. For those from Aotearoa, the reference to the aging politician who is still around, and who is in fact a cloned “puppet belonging to the dying generation of boomers” will resonate. The drama school students bowing down before the acting deities. The extreme scenarios are funny, yet they are worryingly believable – Pablo having to return to China to help negotiate with rogue Chinese dissidents to free his ex-wife, a sex-blogger, who is being held hostage as she is suspected of being part of the government’s propaganda ministry – an inventive way to get Alice alone with Erika? Or all part of the conspiracy?

The two-degrees-of-separation of Aotearoa makes the coincidences in the plot believable – a key player ends up being a person we meet in Alice’s first job – but also adds to the sense of manipulation. You feel, like Alice, you are being played. And the book makes you feel, like Alice, defensive: “Well, I’m glad my personal failure is of use to someone.” Whilst asking the hard questions, the novel is also liberating: the runner who realises she can just stop training; Alice realising what a gift of privilege it is to live long enough to develop lines on your face; accepting that much can be explained by “Most people are scared of free will”.

Erika is a great foil for Alice, she is what Alice might have been, may yet be, had she been one point more intelligent. But is that a good thing? – “I wondered what else was in there. Curare-tipped arrow? Garrotte?”. Is what Alice has become involved with “… just another self-interested interest group – with guns”? This is one of the central questions of the novel, are there such things as “Ethical killing. Expedient violence”, or are they yet another expression of colonial oppression? What other solution is open for those “running from their lives, then wondering where their lives went”.

She’s a killer portrays us as “the predators – outside the predator proof fence”, even more of a statement given I read the book as COP26 failed to make any meaningful plans to rescue our planet. There are descriptions in the book that gesture to what is at stake, not for humans of privilege, but for the earth – a sighting of a stag in the night; the description of a fragment of virgin forest: “Those hills were still fully possessed of themselves.”

In many situations fences are a declaration of war – but what will Alice do about it? Her life is flashing before her, Erika points out a passage of Tolstoy: “I have discovered nothing. I have only perceived what it is that I know” – but what will Alice do about it? A superbly challenging book – read it!!!

This entry was posted in #yeahnoir, Book Review. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall – 2021

  1. Kia ora Alys, I wrangle the books section at The Spinoff and would love to be in touch. Can’t see any contact details on here – maybe you could email me?


  2. Pingback: 2021 Ockham NZ Book Awards Longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  3. Pingback: Aussies & Kiwis on the 2023 Dublin Literary Award longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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