First published back in July of 2012, British author Cathi Unsworth’s fourth full-length novel was the retro gothic thriller entitled ‘Weirdo’.

DLS Synopsis:
Fifteen-year-old Corinne Woodrow had a stigma that she carried around with her.  The people of Ernemouth knew full well that it wasn’t her fault.  It was no doubt because of her miserable upbringing.  Her skank of a mother – Gina would be the one to blame.  But that didn’t change the facts in their heads.  Corinne Woodrow was bad news.

Dressed in black with unruly hair and a punk-cum-gothic attitude, Corinne was every respectable parent’s worst nightmare.  But when Amanda Hoyle and her new boyfriend Wayne move their daughter, Samantha Lamb, to the area, she instantly attaches herself to Corrine’s small group of friends.

But the pretty new blonde girl with the rich parents isn’t quite as she might first appear.  And it’s not long before her true colours start to come out.  Her grandparents find they can no longer cope and Samantha finds herself moving back in with her mother and Wayne.  But Samantha isn’t held to blame for any of this.  Because there’s an easy scapegoat to point the finger of blame at – Corinne Woodrow.

However, petty rivalry gradually moves over to a strange psychotic desire to imitate and ultimately destroy.  Corrine’s once-close-friends begin to find themselves being gradually torn apart.  And one person is in the thick of it all.  A girl who arrived as a timid blonde – but who has now infiltrated their group and broken apart their friendships like a malignant cancer.  And, on a summer’s evening in June of 1984, those malicious games will come to a tragic head.  And Corinne Woodrow will once again be held accountable.  This time for murder.

Now, almost twenty-years later and Janice Mathers QC has hired former Detective Sergeant for the Metropolitan Police, Sean Ward to reopen the investigation into what led up to that horrific murder.  After new forensic evidence is brought to light, pointing to Corrine Woodrow not being alone at the time of the murder, self-employed Private Detective Sean Ward travels to the quiet coastal resort of Ernemouth to dig up a past that the close community wishes would just stay forgotten…

DLS Review:
Cathi Unsworth’s ‘Weirdo’ is one that’s very much split into two distinct halves throughout the entirety of the book.  Each chapter alternates between the two periods in time; separating the events that ran up to the tragic murder in 1984, and Sean Ward’s investigations in 2003.

The result is a story that feels that it’s constantly on the heels of itself.  The parallel running threads don’t always work in the novel’s favour – and often slow the novel down, staggering the pace and taking the reader’s attention away from the unravelling events.

Early on the reader is introduced to Corinne Woodrow who is now (i.e. with now being 2003) incarcerated in a maximum security mental institute.  From this moment onwards the plot is pretty much mapped out for the reader – the end goal somewhat obvious from here – to prove that Woodrow is in fact innocent of the crimes that she has been incarcerated for.

Flipping back to 1984, the tale reverts back to the months leading up to the murder, with the introduction of Samantha Lamb and a number of other key characters.  However, Unsworth doesn’t just bring in a handful of characters to play out the necessary roles for the story to work – instead the reader is subjected to a barrage of off-handed introductions as the tale quickly becomes awash with intermingling characters.

Sadly, with such a volume of characters being injected into the storyline, Unsworth barely has chance to flesh any of them out; making for a fragile framework of weak and easily-forgettable characters that become counterproductive in keeping the reader’s attention.

Indeed, Sean Ward has a key principal character who works closely on the case alongside him – the Editor of The Ernemouth Mercury – Francesca Ryman.  However, even after following this character through the entirety of the book, there’s still little idea of the woman behind the name or indeed any empathy established between her and the reader.  The same can be said for so many of these supposedly ‘key characters’.  The vast majority of Corrine’s circle-of-close-friends are merely names, with their interaction in the plot one of reference rather than any actual ‘believable’ interest.

The elaborately multi-layered-conspiracy aspect that is intrinsically tied into the plot is perhaps the most interesting part to the tale.  Detective Chief Inspector Leonard Rivett is one of the few characters to actually bring a spark of unnerving excitement into the storyline.  However, with such a plodding pace, with far too much over-padding and little in the way of tension or suspense, there’s only so much life that one character can singlehandedly breathe into a novel.

Hand-in-hand with the paper-thin characterisation is the frustratingly weak dialogue.  Expect to have even the most mundane of conversations detailed to the reader word-for-word; just for the completeness of it.  Alongside this the reader finds numerous references to the punk and goth scene of the 1980’s, slotted in at every opportunity in order to set the period of time and undoubtedly play to the author’s own whimsical memories of her adolescent years.  This in itself is one of those love it/hate it aspects that can become a little irritating if it’s not something that has much interest to that particular reader.

Sprinkle a thin layer of Black Magic onto these loosely-woven shenanigans, along with the inclusion of another dysfunctional character – Noj, and you’ve got yourself a moderately goth/horror backdrop with an altogether retro feel that ticks a number of interesting boxes but fails on the most important one – to deliver an entertaining story that successfully keeps the reader’s interest.

It may seem that I’m being overly-scathing on the novel.  And perhaps I am.  For at times there were moments when my interest level peaked to a point whereby I was not feeling like it was an entirely laborious slog just to get through the book.  But then Unsworth would lose the momentum and we’d be back to square one again, with more tedious character inter-play with mindless and downright irritating dialogue between them.

However, the novel does conclude with a surprisingly well-executed ending.  If you have managed to trudge through the overly-verbose storyline, struggled through the numerous character conflicts and Jeremy Kyle-esque upbringings on offer, then the final few chapters do pick up the pace and overall interest level (even if these final chapters are themselves dissected into a veritable mish-mash of annoyingly disorientating short-winded self-contained paragraphs).

The novel runs for a total of 404 pages.

© DLS Reviews


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