“If you start feeling anything for a client – and it does happen – count the money.”
Amongst crowded book shelves, a novel with an unusual setting or protagonist stands out. Untouchable appealed to me as it has both. It is the story of Stella who works as a popular and successful escort. She isn’t a stereotypical junkie hooker with a pimp. She is educated, well read and intelligent, has chosen this profession for her own reasons and clearly enjoys many aspects of it. She contemplates the ethics of her tax return, charges mega-bucks an hour, and when she needs a reality check she counts the cash. The reader quickly learns that Stella’s real name is Grace, and that something happened to Grace a few years earlier from which she hasn’t recovered. She exists. From one day to the next. Then, when one of her escort friends, Elisa, is found dead, and the death gets hushed up, Grace decides that she has to find out what happened. The book switches between the two mysteries: what has happened to Grace and how did Elisa die?
I love the title of this book with its multiple interpretations and conflicting connotations of power and shame. Is one to be sought, worshipped, and the other recoiled at? I thought that Grace was a brilliant protagonist: empathic and human, determined and caring, but also damaged and self-destructive. I really wanted to know what had happened to her and to understand how it might have resulted in her becoming an escort. The whole way through I was asking myself what I wanted for her, and what I thought she wanted and needed. I could see how her psychological state made her prepared to take huge risks and I feared for her. It was as if she felt that she had nothing left to lose and, at times, nothing to live for. I enjoy plots in which a character’s ‘situation’ compromises them when they discover dubious goings on, as this sort of set-up enables an exploration of the murky waters of agency, choice, responsibility and morality. No-one’s going to believe a hooker, right? The intrigue surrounding Elisa’s death is altogether credible and interesting. This, and the window-on-the-escort-world, provide an element of social realism to Untouchable. In general, the characterisation in the novel is superb. Marsh cleverly shows all her characters as multi-dimensional and no-one is monolithically ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I didn’t once get confused between the girls or their customers and with quite a big ‘cast’, this is a risk. Each person has a private and a professional persona. It made me think about Winnicott’s work in psychoanalysis on multiple ‘selves’. Which is, who is, our ‘real self’ and who is the ‘false self’? Is one necessarily ‘nicer’ than the other? Or are we all a mixture of good and bad, of our real and false selves?
In the first half of the book there is a lot of sex. Given Stella’s job I expected this. I felt that Marsh handled these sections extremely skilfully (and I’m not a fan of sex in books): sometimes she glossed over the sex and when it was an important part of the plot or character development, she showed us what was going on. I really hope that readers aren’t put off by the sex because the story strikes me as a universal one: someone makes a terrible mistake which has awful consequences, and finds it hard to come to terms with it all.
While I was reading the book, I found myself wondering if it bothered me that I didn’t know who the author was, that I couldn’t see what she (or he) looks like. Do I need to like an author to like their work? Do I need to know whether I think they are like me? Realistically, even if we see a photograph of an author on a book jacket, or we see them at a festival on a panel, we rarely ‘know’ much about that person. It’s all a mixture of what they want us to see and our own projections and fantasies. I think it takes courage to write a book set in the sex industry as you run the risk of having your book labelled erotica. And people are bound to be curious. To take all these risks? To me, that suggests that this story is one which is extremely important to Ava Marsh. And surely that’s one of the best reasons to write a novel? (I have christened her sub-genre #ViceNoir)
The storytelling is well paced throughout the novel, and the two plot strands complement each other. I raced through the book to find out how it ended. And then read it again for review. There are a number of types of crime in the book. I won’t spoil the plot by naming them, but these add to the story layers and epitomise how complex life often is. If we forget legal definitions, what is a crime? And do crime novels need to include death? If so, does it have to be murder?
In sum, if you’re looking for something a bit ‘different’, I highly recommend Untouchable.
My copy was purchased through Amazon and read on kindle.
My blog tour Q & A with Ava’s main character, Grace is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/08/12/conversation-with-grace-from-ava-marshs-untouchable-blog-tour/
Vicky Newham © 2015