Written by Helen FitzGerald — Helen FitzGerald’s The Cry, a harrowing story about a missing child, was dramatised by BBC TV last year. Worst Case Scenario is a very different book. It’s a satirical take on the revenge thriller and is funny, dark and provocative from the first glorious line.
Mary Shields is a Glasgow probation officer struggling with the twin burdens of overwork and the menopause. Everything comes to a head when she has to supervise Liam Macdowall, a man who has murdered his wife, written a book about it and then been taken up as the poster-boy for a group of men’s rights activists.
Liam’s profile means his supervision doesn’t follow the normal course of meetings in bleak offices punctuated by the odd home visit. He has a busy schedule of public appearances, which is how Mary and her son end up at a reading he is giving in a bookstore and her son becomes entangled with his daughter.
Meanwhile, Mary has to take care of all her other clients – including a paedophile who won’t put his trousers on – negotiate the arcane rules of office procedure, and attend to her burgeoning sex drive while her husband is halfway round the world. He is a graphic novelist who has suddenly developed a cult following and Mary is worried he will be seduced by groupies with piercings.
Liam Macdowall and those around him are doing all they can to subvert her supervision so she decides she will no longer play by the rules herself. And so Mary and her boob sweat go on a mission which only escalates the chaos.
Worst Case Scenario is a brilliant study of what happens when the boundary between your professional persona and your real self breaks down. Suddenly all the anger and exasperation and gallows humour which someone in Mary’s role should keep to herself and a few trusted colleagues is on (very) public view.
Helen FitzGerald takes a wry look at many contemporary issues, particularly gender wars and social media pile-ons as the men’s rights activists are confronted by #MeToo protestors – with Mary somehow managing to get on the wrong side of both. Look out also for a couple of nice author cameos during Liam’s gig at the Edinburgh Book Festival!
Despite her many failings, you do see the other Mary, and get a sense of her skills and insights in the course of her work. In amongst the mayhem, you see her build rapport with prisoners and support her colleagues. The story is also full of realistic details about the working life of a probation officer, the deadlines, the dashes cross country for prison visits, the acronym soup of reports and assessments often completed at home in the middle of the night. Mary has been subject to vexatious complaints and has seen colleagues whose cases have ended with a death, often through no fault of their own.
The tight, realistic framework cleverly counterpoints Mary’s increasingly bizarre behaviour. There is also some poignancy as Mary acknowledges the good work she could do if she only had the resources and the energy. She reflects on the effects of burnout in her profession and that her best work was done in her first years in the job. “She should have been forced to resign at the five-year mark. Every worker should.”
Most of all, many women – and men – will applaud a novel that gives such a frank and visceral account of life with the menopause. She is struggling, she is out of control but perhaps it is that very disinhibition that gives Mary her terrible power.
This is a furious, frenetic read that will have you blushing, squirming and laughing but also reflecting on the fine line between normality and the worst case scenario.
Read our interview with Helen Fitzgerald.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars