Book review: Sweetpea by C. J. Skuse

Best known for a string of smart and sassy Young Adult novels, the award-winning C. J. Skuse has turned her talents to some more '˜grown up' writing.
Sweetpea by C. J. SkuseSweetpea by C. J. Skuse
Sweetpea by C. J. Skuse

And thrillers don’t come much more adult than her dark, disturbing and full-on debut, a riotous, profanity-filled tale of psychopathic obsession, graphic violence and revenge killings, all delivered by a devilish sleight of hand and with a wicked brand of outrageous black humour.

Unsurprisingly, the TV rights for Sweetpea – dubbed American Psycho meets Fleabag – have already been sold to See-Saw Films, producers of the Emmy Award-winning series Top of the Lake and Oscar-nominated film Lion, in a major deal.

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Centre stage is the unforgettable Rhiannon Lewis, a seemingly average girl-next-door who hides her lethal psychopathic tendencies behind a façade of soulless evenings with a group of gossiping girlfriends, dutiful subservience to her secretly despised work colleagues and hours of stale normality with her cheating boyfriend.

What none of them know is that Rhiannon is a compulsive serial killer who makes diary lists of those she would like to see dead… from the man on the Lidl checkout who always mishandles her apples to the guy in a Wales rugby shirt who tried to chat her up, these are just some of the people who have got it coming.

Although her childhood was haunted by an infamous crime, Rhiannon’s life appears to be normal now that her celebrity has dwindled. She is settled into suburban life with her dull boyfriend Craig and her little dog Tink, and enjoys secretly playing with her Sylvanian families.

By day, she finds her job as an editorial assistant at a ‘local snooze paper’ demeaning and unsatisfying, and in the evenings she dutifully listens to her friends’ plans for marriage and babies but only to keep up her ‘façade of normality.’

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‘To function properly in society, you have to have people around you,’ she tells us, but what she really likes is to list ways she can kill people she doesn’t like ‘without getting caught.’

Whether it’s people who eat with their mouths open, those who pronounce ‘h’ as ‘haitch’ or the man in Lycra shorts who barged past her to the last seat on the Tube, Rhiannon has them in her sights.

As the lists grow longer and the body count mounts, Rhiannon forms an unexpected relationship that could make her vulnerable… can the girl everyone overlooks carry on getting away with murder?

This gloriously bleak and black-souled story is certainly not for the squeamish or the faint-hearted, but for those who find themselves laughing out loud with Rhiannon’s salacious but seductive fantasies, obscene observations and dry-as-bones witticisms, Sweetpea is a guilty pleasure.

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Written in the form of Rhiannon’s diary entries, we follow her extraordinary and fast-moving thought processes through a tide of recriminations, a sea of bloody revenge and a slow unfolding of the notorious crime that tipped our killer queen from standard to psycho.

Brutal, bone-crunching, enthralling and entertaining, Sweetpea is as brilliant as it is shocking, and marks a fascinating turning point for a young and vibrant author.

(HQ, hardback, £12.99)