Victoria University Press, NZ RRP $35.00
She’s a Killer is a wild ride. Stylish and a bit kooky, this Kiwi dystopia is shrouded in the banal and familiar world of the near future, and it bristles with contemporary fear. Kirsten McDougall’s feisty plotting and ever-present wit creates fresh and spicy characters. The drama of the novel forces us to reëxamine the way we view the world, and gives a stark reminder of the troubles we shall soon face.
Set in an indeterminate future where inequality is even more starkly pronounced than the present day, New Zealand is welcoming ‘wealthugees’ (wealthy immigrants from climate-ravaged nations) while Palmerston North riots and locals starve. Māori land is sold off, yet again, by the government for wealthugee survival communes, and people like Alice pay for water by the litre. On the whole, life continues as normal. There are influencers, ultramarathon runners, eyeshadow. It’s catastrophic, and yet, the same.
Our protagonist, the not-quite-a-genius Alice, a woman in her late-thirties, stuck working a job she hates. She’s got glib and ready answers as to why she, with her soaring intelligence, isn’t successful and happy. Instead, she’s malnourished and living in the bottom half of her estranged mother Louise’s delapidated Wellington house. Her only companion and source of joy is a plant growing from a crack in her kitchen bench.
Alice’s one friend, Amy, is married to smarmy architect Pete, and through his connections they’re preparing to move onto the survival commune with their three children (and more sauerkraut than anyone could conceivably consume). Alice worries that Amy is growing distant, and in her distress and loneliness, her childhood imaginary friend, the quirky and insightful Simp, returns. Simp is the only person Alice can truly talk to – due to her estrangement with her mother Louise, they communicate only by Morse code. It’s an imperfect mode for nuanced and insightful conversation, and Alice knows they ‘would die misunderstanding each other – but perhaps that is not unusual.’ Alice should worry that she would die misunderstanding everyone around her: she’s cold and detached and more concerned with how to pay for Botox than about anyone’s suffering in this harsh new world.
Then she meets Pablo, an attractive wealthugee. He takes her for dinner at a restaurant guarded by gun-toting security, buys her wine and brie and the food of her dreams. In response to Pablo’s request to know more about her, Alice’s answer is only one example of McDougall’s impeccable comic timing: ‘Can I answer this in gifs?’
Under the spell of Pablo’s wealth, Alice agrees to be the temporary guardian of his daughter, fifteen-year-old Erika, while he returns to China to negotiate the release of his ex-wife from a kidnapping. Once Erika arrives, the novel’s pace quickens, and Alice is drawn into an elaborate plot to save the planet. Her loyalties are tested and her sociopathic tendencies explored through a amateur-level plot of assassination and upheaval.
The prose tends toward unpretentious, clear and direct, though it’s never boring – every page is studded with spiky jokes. McDougall’s humour is the perfect shade of black. But don’t be fooled – this isn’t merely a funny book. She’s a Killer is deadly serious: wake up or suffer the consequences for your choices.
A glorious monologue by Erika about halfway through summarises the book’s message succinctly: ‘We can see it all around us, people who go without basic things and a few people who own enough stuff for ten households. Economies built on activities that harm us and the water we drink, the air we breathe. But what can we do? We all see it but we do nothing. We’re powerless in these systems we help uphold. Things have gone very wrong because we’re too afraid, too stuck in how we do things. To see how we might do it differently.’
McDougall asks how can we remain blinkered to a world in obvious calamity? How can we continue to live in the ways that we do, understanding the harm our current world does not only to the environment, but to our fellow humans? Our comfort is at the expense of another’s suffering, and we can no longer pretend we are not aware.
Alice and Erika are exceptional: they are geniuses (or at least, one IQ point away). They understand each other and the world in ways other people do not. Alice and Erika also know the limits of their ability, of their understanding, which is not a simple or easy accomplishment. It’s a ‘painful thing’ to know what it is we do not know, ‘which is why most people avoid it.’ There are parallels to the magnestism of conspiracy theories that abound right now. In the face of much uncertainty and fear, people cling to anything that gives them a sense of ‘knowledge’, because the alternative – confronting our ignorance and lack of knowledge – is far too frightening. The resurgence of interest in horoscopes in recent years is part of this, a desire to understand and be guided, instead of wallowing in the uneasy and terrifying world of free will and the unknown.
Alice’s ex-boyfriend Nick is an ‘Influencer’, and his lifestyle is an insightful take on the real world of ‘Wellness experts’. Nick’s social feed spouts wisdoms like: ‘Walk away from anything that gives you bad vibes, there is no need to explain it or make sense of it.’ Wellness Influencers and mindfulness advocates believe this is how you come to be truly at peace within yourself, but it can also be a way to deny the reality of the world, to turn a blind eye to the state of the climate crisis, the pandemic, and to the innumerable injustices of people around the globe. Alan, Louise’s partner, believes that if everyone meditated, we would ease the ‘discord’ and we would live ‘in harmony with the land.’ No doubt meditation has many benefits, but it is true that only by turning and facing these undeniable issues head on will be able to make the changes necessary – if only we don’t leave it too late.
Toward the end of the novel, without revealing any spoilers, Alice and Erika sleep overnight in the bush. During the night, Alice wakes to find a stag standing over them. This is one of the few quiet moments in the novel where the action slows, and the narrative has a moment to breathe, making it a highlight and a memorable moment in the rush of the action. It also features this wonderful sentence, ‘Above its head were antlers like the branching crown of a mad king.’
The unnerving appearance of a wild beast in an otherwise urban novel was timely and unsettling. If the time of humans is coming to an end; this stag suggests perhaps animals might rule the world in our absence. She’s a Killer is fun and fast-paced, and it’s possibly (one point off) genius.