Review by Lee Horsley
“I sucked twelve cocks in Magaluf.” From its attention-grabbing opening line on, Helen Fitzgerald’s Viral sets out to make readers share the sense of shock and violation felt when a humiliating experience is exposed for all to see. This “killer sentence,” as The Independent reviewer writes, is “not suitable for a family newspaper”. But its blatant unsuitability for public viewing is what guarantees that a video of the event goes viral on the internet: “#shagaluf is trending worldwide on Twitter. If you type the word slut into Google, I am the first news item to appear.”
This very public ridicule and slut-shaming threatens to change out of all recognition the identity and life of Fitzgerald’s young protagonist. A sensible, studious teenager, Su had led so sheltered a life that she “honestly didn’t know that the word slut was an okay one to say out loud” – let alone to be splashed across the internet. Sent by her mother to Magaluf to keep an eye on her wayward sister Leah, Su herself is drawn into a drink- and drug-fuelled night of partying: “‘Are you ready to get cock?’ Millie, Natasha, Leah, Me: ‘YES YES YES!’ I hadn’t said the c word. But I do believe, looking back, that I was ready to get it.” When she wakes the next morning the film someone took is already online, and she feels she has no choice but to go into hiding.
Alternating with Su’s chapters, Fitzgerald gives us the equally compelling narrative of her mother Ruth, a judge in the Scottish courts. Ruth, who has spent her life upholding the law, now feels driven to take revenge, to inflict as much suffering as possible on those responsible: “In the two days that followed the posting of Su’s video, Ruth’s desire for blame and punishment had risen to an all-time high.” The impulse briefly dissipates when her husband dies, “But then it came back. Oh boy, did it come back.”
Fitzgerald’s tightly structured novel holds the reader’s attention to the very end. Her sharp dialogue and darkly humorous scenes carry us along at a cracking pace. Viral is a tense thriller that explores serious and pressing themes. It is a subtle, insightful representation of online abuse and misogyny, victimization, and the limits of the law in an age when instant world-wide notoriety can redefine people and ruin their lives.