Written by Phil Kurthausen — This fast, fun, thriller set in Barcelona is strikingly of the moment, featuring both the Catalan independence movement and the seductive power of Instagram influencers.
Meredith is an American woman with a secret. She has lived in many different places under a number of names, never settling, always looking over her shoulder. She is just about getting by in Barcelona, making money from fleecing tourists and subletting a room in a grotty apartment, when she has a chance meeting with Richard, a man she knew when she was backpacking some years earlier in Thailand.
She is initially unhappy to be recognised, when she knew Richard she had a different name. However she agrees to take him for a drink. Then she learns that Richard and his friends are now successful Instagram influencers and are in Barcelona to create content for their inspirational account. She agrees to meet up with the group, who call themselves ‘The Squad’, at the boutique hotel where they are staying and show them the ‘real’ Barcelona.
She takes them to a bar frequented by Catalan independence campaigners and one of the group, Amy, disappears, having apparently become involved with the charismatic leader of the protests. Meredith is hired by The Squad to track Amy down, and meanwhile is invited to take her place in photoshoots. Meredith is soon determined to inveigle her way into their affluent world and wonders whether she really wants to find Amy at all.
Meanwhile, another of the group, Olivia, is extremely sceptical about Meredith and questions her complete lack of social media history. Meredith’s life is soon very hectic as she juggles a dodgy landlord demanding rent, her fears that her past might catch up with her, police interest in her involvement in hustling tourists, and the attentions of another handsome independence protester. All this before the crime hinted at in the book’s title even takes place.
The novel brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of Barcelona, and the many layers of the city – the affluence, the squalor, the passionate identity, the bland attractions, the history and tragedy of the Civil War, the trivia and tat, all, somehow occupying the same space. It captures that paradox of overtourism – that by visiting a city to appreciate its character, you add to the weight of the industry that undermines it. Meredith casts an acerbic eye over all of this, living on the fringes, of the city but also apart from it.
The portrayal of The Squad is nicely done. Meredith is simultaneously aware of the fiction which their Instagram images create and seduced by the idea of leading that life. This is in part because of their aspirational lifestyle, which contrasts with her own, but she also craves the sense of belonging.
The revelation about Meredith’s past, which contributes to the tension in the early part of the book, is downplayed, and doesn’t have the dramatic consequences you might expect. The crime in the present happens over halfway through the book. However, after that, the novel is driven by the cat-and-mouse element of the investigation and the tension ramps up as events are played out against the background of a blockade of the city by the separatists.
Meredith is a fascinating character, with her wry observations and her outsider’s sensibility. Even though the story is told from her point of view, there is much that remains mysterious about her. The reader is left to decide whether she is gleefully amoral – a Villanelle or a Ripley – or whether she is someone who is driven by a need to find love after a traumatic past. She keeps you guessing right to the end.
Political protest in the heart of a city also forms the backdrop to Playboy by Joe Thomas.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars