Before I was a superhero, you could have walked into my life at any moment, and I’d have been tidying up. Sorting, discarding, relocating: it was my life’s work. And it was exactly what I was doing the night I discovered Elliot’s secret.
Jenny Pepper, 42, manager of a charity bookshop, married to Elliot, graphic designer, with a 14-year-old daughter, Martha, is fed-up of her life. As the novel begins, she is tidying up after her family; Martha is at a friend’s house and Elliot’s at an award ceremony. When she goes into the study, she notices their wedding album poking out of the shelf. Picking it up to look through it, a comic book, drawn by Elliot drops out, the hero Vermilion based on Elliot – he has his eyes. Jen’s impressed with the visuals until she sees the woman who needs to be rescued – ‘She was dressed in a scrap of material cut low over the solid globes of her breasts, high across her hairless groin.’
Once in a while I’d chosen to share with Elliot some of my despair over the way my body had run out of control, and every time he’d been admirably supportive: I love your body, you’ve always been beautiful, aren’t we lucky to be growing older together? Blah blah blah. But look at this, now! This wasn’t just a comic book. It was a window into his desires, and this was what he wanted: big tits, tiny waist, hairless fanny. It wasn’t off-the-peg porn, either. He designed it himself, and he wanted the stuff you cannot have without surgery and childlessness and the kind of constant attention that women like me can’t give themselves.
Jenny doesn’t tell him she’s found the comic. A few days later in the shop, sorting through a donation, Jen finds a fancy dress mask which she initially puts in a pile of unwanted things but there’s her boss Allie’s fancy dress party to prepare for and Jen has an idea.
The first thing I saw was red. Red on my lips, red lacing up the front of my black corset, red lining my black cape, framing the shape of my body. I saw what the shape was, that it was less shaming than I’d feared it might be; the out of breasts rendered voluptuous by the twin forces of the corset and a push-up bra, the in of my waist not the sharp descent I’d want – the bowed line of boning, the roll of fat between corset and skirt – but an in nonetheless. Slung low on my hips, a toolbelt (keys, mobile phone, likely-looking knife designed for cutting cheese). My fists clenched in their satin gloves, the mask dangled from one hand.
But Jen doesn’t get to her party in the superhero outfit because as she walks past an alleyway near the churchyard, she sees a woman being attacked by a man. Initially Jen shouts at him and phones the police but after he laughs at her and goes to punch the victim again, Jen attacks him and sits on him until the police arrive.
Oh God, for a few seconds I was a superhero. I was. The rush of it! A glut of chemicals slamming into my blood, a lightness in my belly, the unburdening of violence. It was a kind of frenzied passion and when it was over the world was different.
Jen runs before the police can see who she is, goes to the party in a completely different outfit and reveals to no one what she’s done. But the costume keeps calling to her; before long she’s out on the streets again and soon teenage girls in Martha’s school year are being attacked and Jen knows she has to do something about it.
Vigilante is a novel about women’s bodies – how they see themselves and how they’re seen by males; about marriage and the compromises and sacrifices you make; about finding yourself and being comfortable in your skin and fulfilled in your work/hobbies.
Harris looks closely at the expectations society places on women – young women in particular – and how these inform the way men think of women. She explores this through images of the body – the cartoon Elliot draws; graffiti on a shop wall of a young woman wearing the uniform from Martha’s school; the way Jen feels about her body and both the comments she endures when she’s wearing the costume and the comments made about her in the press and unknowingly by the people around her – but also through the roles that Jen and Elliot take in their marriage and the resentments they bear when one believes the other is getting to be the ‘goodie’ with their daughter while they take a more difficult role.
The plot’s gripping; the interweaving of several strands – the superhero, the attacks, Jen and Elliot’s marriage, Martha – maintain the narrative drive and make this a difficult novel to put down while Jen’s voice felt like a real, forty-something-year-old’s voice with believable concerns about her life.
Vigilante is a novel in which character, voice, plot and themes come together to create a cracking read. It’s a brilliant book. Highly recommended.
Thanks to W&N for the review copy.