The Killing Jar
Why is it that we take such joy in reading fiction about the degradation of children? Maybe we feel some relief at reading about childhood horrors we have avoided. Then again, such fiction can also be thought of as cautionary tales, though its writers would rail against this classification--they would stress the importance of the story, not the lesson it imparts. Nicola Monaghan, author of The Killing Jar, grew up around the staid planned communities of Nottingham, England, she writes about, and she has absorbed its bleakness, its boredom, and its horror. Monaghan very well may not regard her book as a cautionary tale, but the sum-total effect of the book is dramatically cautionary.
The Killing Jar's protagonist is Kerrie-Ann Hill--nicknamed Kez--who ages from 5 to 18 through the book. The title comes from Kez's neighbor Mrs. Ivanovich's butterfly-killing jars, but, as the book progresses, it is clear that the killing jar is a metaphor for the poisonous nature of the town and its seedier, drug-addicted, criminal residents. People sell drugs and beat up other people who sell drugs. People are set on fire and have their hands smashed with hammers. People have sex, take drugs, yell at each other, and kill each other. People get vividly gory abortions. Every facet of life in Nottingham is suffused with ghastliness, except, perhaps, for the real love that arises between some of the book's characters. Kez's brother Jon, five years her junior, is born addicted to heroin and cocaine, and Kez deeply loves him from the first moment he wraps his tiny hand around her finger. Kez's boyfriend, Mark, a heroin-addicted sociopath of the first rank, is, between his periods of drug-induced stupor and fury, deeply in love with Kez. These relationships, assuredly imperfect and occasionally abhorrent, are written with touching detail by Monaghan, who must have set out to write this book with an agenda of shattering her characters' lives and found human beings along the way.
The book could be read in a couple of hours--a brief orgy of violence and abuse--or over the course of several weeks, each horrific incident boring into your skull. There is enough here to satisfy both fans of the "Angry Young Men" literature of the 1950s--fans of Alan Sillitoe and Harold Pinter, say--and fans of a less easily classifiable literature, that of strong young women beset by innumerable troubles--such as those found in writers from George Eliot to Zora Neale Hurston. The violence of The Killing Jar is often difficult, the inhumanity often unbearable, but the book rewards a reader who wants an unsparing--really, really unsparing--account of a disastrous childhood, an account that is nonetheless sensitively rendered and deceptively simple.