My Name is Mary Sutherland by Kate Farrell – a review by Gary Fry
This lengthy novella (54,000 words) takes the form of a confessional monologue delivered by a late-teenager restricted to a support facility for disturbed children. Mary Sutherland narrates her recent history, from age 12 onwards, documenting a rich passage of time during which her mother dies and her father remarries, to that wicked stepmother of much dark fiction. And that’s essentially the plot. But it’s what Farrell does with this familiar material that sets it well apart from others.
The first thing to admire is the voice: convincingly innocent, slightly bewildered, and decidedly offbeat, Mary’s tale-telling is both starkly honest and patently unreliable. Her habit of having us feel sorry for her plight – and yes, quite enough pitiable episodes occur for us to realise how dire her daily life has become – is frequently undermined by later admissions of some unspeakable act, usually involving animals. Indeed, it’s this simultaneous assault on readers’ impressions – engaging both our sympathy and revulsion – that offers the whole book such a compelling grip.
I’m not about to describe the chilling finale to this novella, but I will say that its causal facts – the stuff that “made” Mary – are explored in a suitably sporadic manner, with a negligent father, absent mother, furtive uncle, cruel friends, superior relatives, and wicked stepmother all among the suspects. The truth is something more than all these things, of course – each one in combination and then some, perhaps – and Farrell does her novelist’s work well, by elucidating the lot without making authoritative judgement. It’s up to us, the readers, to decide on why Mary does what she does.
There is much more I admired here. There’s clever wordplay throughout, with Mary often trying to get to grip with her immediate world through the phrasemaking tendencies of her adult companions. I thought some of the more troubling scenes were well done, too, with Farrell drawing on casual disclosures from Mary to reveal the full horror of her existence. It’s a very M R Jamesian technique and one which works extremely well in this less chaste environment. I won’t give away any of these savage moments, but if I say that one involves a cat, you might realise what you’re in for here.
The characterisation was rich throughout, the father and stepmother suitably negligent without becoming comic-book caricatures. Nevertheless, if I had any issue with the book it was the way the stepmother seemed to agree to Mary becoming a babysitter without at least a little protest. Given the context of her other behaviours – hugely protective of the child whenever Mary is around – I would have preferred a few more scenes of fractious debate here, before the father maybe persuaded his new wife to use Mary as a cost-free resource in this way. This is a relatively minor matter, however, and simply shows how difficult it was to find anything critical to say about this fine, chilling book.
The story builds to a wonderfully macabre conclusion, something which Mary’s possibly delusional visions right the way through (and all are done most effectively) have been preparing us for. In some ways, the book reminded me of a wonderful Ruth Rendell novella called Heartstones in which an elder sister documents the activities of her almost certainly psychotic younger sister. Farrell’s tale had the same sinister, furtive drive, the same convincing delineation of a young girl’s inner and outer worlds. But here the voice is far less plummy, the characters more everyday than Rendell’s solidly middle-class youths, and the events more embedded in the commonplace world of schools, homes and family.
In short, My Name is Mary Sutherland is a marvellously compelling read – I consumed it in just a day, during two lengthy sittings – and Farrell should be congratulated for her attention to detail, her masterful modulation of voice, and convincing development of mounting psychopathy. This is a truly excellent book.
You can buy a copy here: http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/my-name-is-mary-sutherland-jhc-kate-farrell-2253-p.asp