I don’t do well with violence. The thought of something grizzly turns my stomach and I’m often found hiding behind a cushion during vicious telly dramas. I’m less haunted by gruesome passages in novels, but these things tend to stay with me long after the last page.
Lairies, the debut novel from author Steve Hollyman, is no exception. But it wasn’t just the violence (and, believe me, there’s a lot) that affected me, it was the entire narrative. Billed as ‘brilliant and brutal’ by his publisher Influx Press, Lairies is exactly what it says on the cover. Having gobbled the book in a matter of days (at 409 pages, it’s no slim story), I’d place the emphasis firmly on the brilliant part. Yes, parts of it made me feel queasy (“you smash your forehead onto his face so hard that you can’t tell if the horrendous cracking sound is his nose or your skull”), but it’s a raw, visceral and compelling read, like sitting down in the pub with a slightly unwelcome drunk and being told their entire life story. You feel uncomfortable but it’s difficult to look away.
The premise? Shaun wakes up in hospital after a fight in a local nightclub and discovers his girlfriend has been assaulted. His friends, Ade and Colbeck, were there that night – “the climax to weeks of escalating violence, their two-man mission to kick back against a broken generation”. Think vigilantes trawling bars, pubs and streets to combat the ‘lairies‘ whom they encounter. The novel begins at the end as we’re invited to follow the lives of these violent 20-something men as they desperately seek a purpose, and unpick the events that culminated in such a shocking yet predictably violent end.
But it’s not all broken skulls and getting pissed. At its heart Lairies is an intelligent exploration of masculinity. The novel is set at the start of the 21st century and it would be remiss of me not to point out that this crisis of masculinity has become steadily worse. While ‘toxic masculinity’ is a relatively new buzzword, it’s been bubbling under the surface of society for quite some time. We still inhabit a world where men are urged to ‘man up’ and sensitivity is seen as weakness. We only need look at recent reactions to the global COVID-19 pandemic where wearing a mask is seen as deeply unmasculine in certain circles (a recent viral Tweet comparing mask-wearing to getting “f**ked in the arse by your girlfriend” springs to mind). While the comment faced some ridicule on social media, it represents a far more prevalent set of beliefs than we might allow ourselves to believe.
Violence and fear aside, Lairies includes some surprisingly tender moments. “What I want most is to find Steph, and to put my arms around her, and just hold her like that, just hold her like that for a while and stroke her hair hair and let her cry tenderly into my cheek,” says one of the characters, Tag. Later in the passage, he adds: “It takes a man to admit he’s wrong in front of a girl, but most blokes I know don’t see it that way. They think that to see the error of your ways – and, to a greater extent, to be so brave as to admit it – is to show some kind of weakness.”
Lairies reminds me of Ben Hall’s brilliant short story collection, The Quarry, which follows 10 intertwining stories covering topics such as social mobility, isolation and class. Hollyman touches on similar tropes in this unflinching critique of masculinity and the search for purpose.
I love novels which force you to confront your feelings. Women are constantly compelled to navigate cautionary tales of violent men as though it’s somehow our responsibility to stop their actions (or, worse, it’s often implied that it’s our fault) and I found it difficult to be sympathetic towards Hollyman’s characters. Nonetheless, I was gripped by Lairies in all its bloody, messy, terrifying glory and it left me with much to think about. Hollyman creates fully realised, believable and intriguing characters who, despite their actions, manage to keep a reader with them. While we’re not necessarily on their side (I’m not even sure that’s what they’re after), we recognise them. And we finally see them when previously we might have looked away.
This is a brilliant debut novel. Inventive, well-written and absolutely bloody brutal.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Lairies is published by Influx Press and available to buy from February 2021