Coe breeches the boundaries of film and reality in a harrowing tale set in 1975 Yorkshire, England. Child star Lallie is exchanging her comedic image for a provocative role clearly meant for adults. At ten, Lallie is capable of effecting a worldly-wise (if young) character pursued by an older man. At the same time, a real-life drama is enacted between two other ten-year-olds: spoiled Gemma and the nearly feral Pauline Bright. Activities on set are narrated by Vera, a seasoned actress happy to have any role, and Quentin, a Hollywood producer sent to evaluate Lallie’s potential for an American audience. Vera provides the nuts and bolts perspective of filmmaking, the idiosyncratic methods of making a movie, while Quentin views all from inside her personal inadequacies and reliance on substances to navigate a demanding career.
On set and through the carping demands of a pushy stage mother, Lallie operates in the rarified world of celebrity. Pauline and Gemma inhabit more painful and familiar lives. A bully who survives by her wits and the intimidation of others, Pauline is an outcast, shunned by Gemma and other classmates but for a thread of dark fascination that draws Gemma to the other, Pauline the antithesis of all her classmate disdains. When Gemma’s narcissistically well-ordered world is drastically altered by her mother’s marital separation and move into the home of a singularly unattractive lover, security shifts from surety to less stable ground, Gemma suddenly vulnerable: “No one had told her anything, but she knew.” Hence a small chink that opens the child to Pauline’s insistent advances, an influence that draws a newly-resentful daughter into the shattered terrain of badly damaged Pauline, whose sad life defies description (though Coe does a superb job of describing the horrors of that unfortunate’s daily life).
In a plot that begins with minor tremors of discomfort, a child actress becoming a caricature of herself in a provocative film, the unhealthy relationship of the desperate Pauline and the confused Gemma and the treacherous territory of ten-year-old girls in jeopardy accelerates to the realm of nightmare. While the obnoxious, pathetic Lallie is a pivotal character, the true tragedy is to be found in the interaction between Pauline and Gemma. Poverty, perversion and other societal ills embellish an essentially plain landscape of school and home, curiosity, boredom and rage propelling the girls into a frenzy of confusion, frustration and aggression. The result is mind-boggling, a confluence of opportunity and cruelty that is atrocious but no longer shocking in a world rife with extremes, the bitter fruit of poverty, drugs, overindulgence and insatiable self-gratification to alleviate emotional distress.
The psychological geography of Coe’s novel is as bleak as the physical environment, the purposeful blindness of a school where bullies hone their skills, families hiding behind a façade of normalcy, a public happily distracted by fantasy, societal dysfunction finally acted out in an ugly scenario where mindless brutality is fueled by rage and the atavistic exhilaration of violence. Coe holds a mirror to the world, and the image is gut-wrenching.