Sarah Dobbs’ new novel, Killing Daniel, tells the story of two women struggling to live with the past. Fleur is trapped in a violent relationship with Marcus, haunted by memories of childhood abuse and the murder of her childhood sweetheart, Daniel. Chinatsu, on the other side of the world in Tokyo, looks for release from her passionless, sexless marriage to Yugi. Fleur and Chinatsu are linked by memories of their childhood friendship – a brief encounter that ended when Chinatsu’s family returned to Japan. As the novel progresses both Fleur and Chinatsu leave their abusive partners and drift towards a dramatic reunion and denouement.
Chapters focus alternatively on Fleur, Chinatsu, and Yugi, and this structure works well. The excitement of the chase drives the novel forward, as characters pursue each other in an entertaining romp across Tokyo and Greater Manchester.
Dobbs describes well the terraced houses that form the town where Fleur lives, and her understated description of Salford Quays is particularly effective, but the sections set in Tokyo are marred by factual errors and oddities (Chinatsu rides the bullet train from Jiyugaoka to central Tokyo). Such errors are a distraction, but not enough to spoil one’s enjoyment of the story. Similarly, the occasional confusion between past and present tense is a distraction, but on the whole Dobbs’ prose is clear and vivid. Some metaphors exhibit a pleasing deftness of touch (language is ‘glued down’).
The quality of the characters varies. Some are complex and believable, such as Fleur, who struggles with herself, her sexuality, and her memories. On the other hand, Yugi is never more than a clichéd Japanese version of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Marcus is a lager-swilling lout of the sort that sadly comes close to dominating Dobbs’ portrayal of the working-class male. But whatever the shortcomings in Dobbs’ depiction of some secondary characters, the two protagonists, Fleur and Chinatsu, are well handled and it is a pleasure to read of their growth and development as the novel progresses. It is also refreshing to read a work featuring two strong female protagonists, even if the sense that they are defined by the males they are with (or not with) is sadly never quite expelled – though perhaps that is natural in a book about sexuality and relationships.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Killing Daniel is Dobbs’ engagement with her themes: communication, memory, and femininity. This novel appears to have been written for a PhD in creative writing, so one might expect a cerebral aspect to the book, but Dobbs pulls it off with aplomb, and never at the cost of readability. The reader discovers that although modes of communication, including mobile phones and text messages, are plentiful, characters remain unable to openly express their fears and desires. In the end it is physical communication that prevails as the most expressive and sincere. Both protagonists are acutely conscious of the sensations of their own bodies – a fact that also goes some way to determining their identity as women.
There are a few minor niggles that mar Killing Daniel, but it remains nevertheless an entertaining thriller that just might give its reader pause for thought.
Killing Daniel is scheduled for publication by Unthank Books on the 5th of November 2012.