Saturday, May 7, 2016

Review: VIRAL

VIRAL by Helen Fitzgerald (Faber, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When Su Oliphant-Brotheridge, the straitlaced adopted daughter of a Scottish judge, accompanies her wild sister on a party-filled trip to the Mediterranean, her life is irrevocably changed. A night of drunken madness is caught on camera and shared with the world, upturning everything she knows. But who should pay for what happened?

In an era where the Internet and social media seem all pervasive, hundreds of millions of people connected at all times via their phones, the idea of our most embarrassing or shameful moments being paraded for all to see is downright frightening. Think of those things you got up to at high school or college, the private moments that were bad or sad enough if your group of friends or classmates found out - but at least you could eventually laugh it off and move on.

Nowadays with all-pervasive camera phones, and a largely unregulated Internet, witnesses to your personal traumas, embarrassing moments, and low points may not just be anyone present, but also anyone who views an amateur video posted alone. Hundreds of strangers, thousands, even millions. Regardless of your consent. And that’s the fear that Scottish-Aussie author Helen Fitzgerald has tapped into with her latest page-whirring suspense tale, Viral. 

Su Oliphant-Brotheridge is a ‘good kid’. Asian in ethnicity, Scottish in upbringing, Su gets good grades, saves money, wants to be a doctor, and is as wild as beige wallpaper. Unlike her sister Leah, who was a surprise arrival soon after Su was adopted by parents who thought they couldn’t have children. Each sister feels somewhat disconnected, in differing ways, from their well-to-do family. The children of successful court judge Ruth Oliphant-Brotheridge, a woman who’s used to being in control and everyone doing what she says. So it’s shocking enough when an internet video surfaces of one of the sisters performing a public sex act in a Magaluf nightclub, but even moreso that that sister is Su. The quiet, dutiful, virginal good girl, displayed on computer and phone screens all over the world as a drunken tramp. Or worse. 

Leah returns home to face the music, Su goes into hiding in Spain, and Ruth goes on the warpath. Someone must be to blame. Su would never do anything like that of her own volition. Surely the judge can find someone else to judge. 

Helen Fitzgerald has crafted an intriguing tale that has a real ‘ripped from the headlines’ modern feel. The issues raised are very topical, but the author adroitly blends various themes within a strong, propulsive narrative. The page whir, and it never feels soapbox-y. Just what are the rights and wrongs of our Internet age? How much personal responsibility should someone take when drink and drugs are involved, but there hasn’t been any criminal activity? What should or shouldn’t be criminal. As the view counter rises – hundreds of people, thousands of people, millions of people – and the Oliphant-Brotheridge family try to salvage themselves from the wreckage of Su’s drunken night out, the reader is taken on a gripping, thought-provoking journey that is as much about human nature and weaknesses as any criminal acts. 

Viral is a fascinating book that raises many questions, and will stick with you far beyond its unforgettable opening line. 

Craig Sisterson is a features writer from New Zealand who writes for publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson 

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