Bright Young Women
Jessica Knoll / Pan Macmillan
TV rights were snapped up in a flash for this right-on, razor-sharp flip of the Ted Bundy myth. Whereas most thrillers sensationalise violence against women, Jessica Knoll is determined to turn that tradition on its head. She takes as her starting point the serial killer’s murder of two young women in a sorority house at Florida State University in 1978. She never names him — referring to him as The Defendant instead — and steadily pushes back against the popular belief that he was a charming and intelligent man. Bright Young Women imagines how the survivors of the sorority-house attack, together with a woman impacted by an earlier Bundy crime — when he kidnapped and killed two women in a Washington state park — went on with their lives afterwards, how the trauma shaped and redrew their very selves forever. A canny, thought-provoking take on our true-crime prurience.
Mona Awad / Simon & Schuster
Canadian novelist Mona Awad takes on the beauty industry and the quest for perfection that sends women over the edge. Awad’s novels all have what she terms a “careful what you wish for” quality. Rouge is inspired by the age-old story of Snow White and the queen’s unsettling relationship with her mirror. The main character, Belle, a lonely dress-shop assistant, is obsessed with skin-care videos, lying curled around her laptop at night “like it’s a fire”. She soaks her face in treatments such as a “cult French elixir that’s still illegal in some countries” and a placenta potion. When her vain mother dies, Belle travels to California to tie up her estate and gets lured to the baroque, secretive spa to which her mother was devoted. Think Mommie Dearest mashed up with Eyes Wide Shut, along with a seam of dark, glittering humour.
Jordan Harper / Faber
In this superb LA neo-noir, Jordan Harper out-Ellroys James Ellroy. In Hollywood, Mae Pruett is a very specialised PR agent: she’s the one who keeps clients’ names out of the news, not in it, “filling the world with noise so you can’t hear the whispers”. She drives around with blank non-disclosure agreements stuffed into her tote bag, whitewashing the dirty deeds of stars and politicians. Harper creates a sulphurous, electric city backdrop teeming with ego and display, greed and power, that hides a dank netherworld of exploitation. As Mae’s boss tells her, “It’s not that the truth isn’t important. It just doesn’t matter.” This is a city of pitiable wannabes and vapid influencers who live together in “clout houses”’ where they ply their trade; that is, reeling out “sponcon” — or sponsored content — for the “socials”. When a co-worker dies suspiciously, Mae begins to look into a web of other deaths with the help of Chris, her ex, a shambling former cop. It’s a rattling good read.
Lauren Beukes / PRH
Lauren Beukes is one of our proudest literary exports, a blazingly talented writer with a head-spinning imagination. The adaptation of her book The Shining Girls was picked up by Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company and streams on Apple TV. In her latest outing, Bridge, she reverses the Greek myth of Persephone, whose mother, the summer goddess Demeter, went searching for her in the Underworld and brought about the change in seasons. In this story a daughter named Bridge goes hunting for her troubled mother Jo after her death. Bridge slips realms and whole identities in her pursuit of her mother’s obsession: a “dreamworm” that she believed enables travel to other realities. Does grief itself alter space and time? The “multiverse” is big in entertainment right now and Beukes is surfing its phantasmagorical wave beautifully. Fiendishly original and challenging, she is at her apogee.
• Michele Magwood is an award- winning literary critic
• From the November edition of Wanted, 2023.