In New Zealand author Vanda Symon’s new stand-alone crime novel, Faceless, an impulsive decision escalates into a violent situation. Two worlds collide one night when Bradley, an overworked and repressed office worker picks up Billy, a Fijian street worker, on the notorious K Road in Auckland.
The 18-year-old Billy only turns tricks to have enough money for food and art supplies. She dreams of something bigger, but for now, she has her art and the support of her homeless friend, Max.
Bradley wants to blow off steam after a stressful day at work where he’s been ordered around by his obnoxious and demanding boss. Initially Bradley is the stereotypical doormat. He endures the late, unreasonable hours and meekly accepts the scrutiny of his domineering wife in whose eyes he can never do any good. But his pent-up frustration has to be released. Some people go to the gym to work off their frustrations; Bradley decides to pick up a prostitute. Being an inexperienced kerb cruiser the incident doesn’t go as smoothly as he hoped it would. Angry at himself and convinced that Billy sniggered at his inadequacy, he attacks her setting in motion a chain of shocking events.
Bradley acts on impulse, but as time progresses, he enjoys this new-found power over a vulnerable, exposed woman. Suddenly he has more confidence, no longer feels inadequate and for once, he calls the shots, not his boss or his wife. It’s at this point that meek and mild Bradley turns into a vile and despicable character. It’s obvious that he is only looking for an excuse to act violently and he revels in his power to torture and harm Billy repeatedly. He also firmly puts any blame onto her.
The story is told by three narrators: Bradley, Billy and Max. Bradley and Billy’s sections are particularly gruelling to read. Billy’s point of view is chilling and the level of fear is tangible in her descriptions of Bradley’s actions and her desperation to find a way out of the situation. Violence against women in crime fiction novels is nothing new, but the level of misogyny and abuse will shock even the toughest reader. It’s not necessarily the graphic descriptions, but rather the frequent sexual references in Bradley’s inner dialogue and his observations of female characters. Experiencing these repetitive thoughts of violence and sex through Bradley’s twisted mind is tough to endure and borders on gratuitous. Of course, the whole point is to highlight misogyny, but repeating the same thoughts feels counterproductive. Bradley’s sadistic actions on their own get the message across effectively. The fact that this violence is also a sexual turn-on makes for particularly unsettling reading.
Billy’s sudden disappearance is noticed by her homeless friend Max. They shared a sleeping space in an alley and Billy always let Max know when she would be away. Max’s pleas to the police fall on deaf ears and he isn’t taken seriously due to his odious appearance and pungent odour. Fortunately Max has history with someone in the police and Meredith, a detective, takes him seriously. Max also joins forces with his estranged son, Harry, hoping to track down Billy. But will they be able to get to her in time?
The first three-quarters of the novel unfold fairly slowly, but the pace picks up in the last third of the novel. Readers will have to be patient for some action, however, there’s no shortage of tension and suspense from the start.
Faceless conjures up an unsettling and upsetting situation of violence against women, often, and in this case, the direct result of severe toxic masculinity. It highlights the plight of the faceless, silent female victims and the overlooked men and women who live on the streets, ignored and often despised. Lastly, and no less importantly, it’s a reminder of the urgency need for mental health support. The depiction of both these extremely relevant topics are where the novel’s strength lies.
Faceless is much darker than Symon’s Sam Shephard series. There is no trace of wit; no lighter moments. These are serious topics delivered in a gut-punching way. Brace yourself for an uncomfortable read.
You can read our other reviews of Vanda Symon’s books here.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars