Can one be happy working in the sleazy, squalid world of drug-dealing? Certainly not in the East Midlands, where this form of happiness often comes cheap
- just ask young Kez (Kerrie-Ann). Drugs act as a temporary buttress but do little to alleviate the endless cycle of poverty and hopelessness
enwrapping much of Kez's life in this Nottingham housing estate.
Her childhood starts out innocently enough when at five she befriends a kindly neighbor. Mrs. Ivanovich is a retired entomologist who mentors Kez and teaches her much about the lives of bugs, insects, and ladybirds but also instructs her in the acidic and destructive effects of the chemicals in the killing jar.
Before she dies, Mrs. Ivanovich gifts to Kez a petrified butterfly, "morpho peleides," rumored to have been collected from a Peruvian rainforest. Kez nicknames her Morph, and it becomes Kez's lifeline to another world, "I'd look at Morph and feel better, remembering there were other, better places away from my house on the close."
Life for Kez is happy for a while, until one day her grandmother leaves, her mother loses interest in her, and a series of boyfriends traipse through the house intent on a type of sleazy exploitation
- especially Uncle Dave, who is so loaded with money that he doesn't hesitate to shower gifts on both Kez and her younger brother, Jon.
Dave expects something in return for his kindness. Soon enough he's asking her to work, ferrying packages of paper around the estate containing a bitter white powder and even asking her to sell them at school. They tell her she's selling happiness, but it's "the kind of happiness that makes people talk too fast and their eyes look scary."
Everything begins to unravel when Kez's Mum spirals into heroin addiction and either just sits with Dave or up in her room, her eyes glazed and misted over.
A series of circumstances lead Kez to be temporarily incarcerated in a Detention Centre for Girls. It is here that she meets an upper-class girl called Bek who introduces her to the delights of speed.
The cycle is established, the pattern set, and Kez grows older knowing nothing else. Upon release, she doesn't hesitate to take up dealing full time, and along with her best friend, Mark, she traffics around the community, both of them becoming a powerful force on the estate. Always high on ecstasy and speed, they rave all night at the latest clubs and then fly off to illegal parties in warehouses and on farms.
Amid the "sticky lights and the sweaty dance floors" and the music constantly screaming on about acid, together Kez and Mark make a fairly lucrative living. Of course, it's all fun, but Kez ultimately experiments at her own risk and finds herself in increasingly unsettling territory. It doesn't help that heroin addiction is finally getting the better of Mark.
Throughout, Kez holds fast to her beliefs as she tries to imagine a life far from all of the baseness, sordidness, and violence of home.
Mark remains the only person whom Kez can rely on, until he grins his crack-headed grin at her, his eyes all shiny the way coke makes them, as though he's "no better than an insect," like the beetles caught in her beloved killing jar.
Heavily utilizing the local vernacular and using Kez as her primary narrator, author Nicola Monaghan taps deep into the heart of the Nottingham drug culture. There's nothing glamorous here, especially the terrible downers that inevitably result from all of the smack and speed and coke that ultimately consume and devour these characters' lives.
In this world, happiness is bought and sold in the form of pills "that are two quid wholesale," and ecstasy does exactly what it says in the packet: "you can magic up whatever you want and it will last forever."
These certainly aren't bad people, just misguided and marginalized, intent to live on the edge with no prospects and very little to lose. For them, drugs are an irrevocable part of their lives, where loyalty is to nothing but the needle and the spoon, and where life is cheap, thoughtless, and ultimately quite heartless.