Teenager Kit is fine with coasting along, living an average small-town American life, until she befriends the new girl Diane, who awakens in Kit a desire to excel, to keep up with Diane’s achievements as best she can. There is no animosity or competitiveness between the two, though they come from very different backgrounds. Instead a bond is formed; a bond so close that they are like “Siamese Twins, fused in some hidden place.” But of course, because this is the start of crime fiction writer Megan Abbott’s latest thriller Give Me Your Hand, you know something dark is lurking just around the stressful corner. Sure enough, in a moment of true faith and friendship, Diane tells Kit a secret that tears them apart. Many years go by and the girls grow into adults without any contact with each other, until Diane shows up as the new recruit at the competitive science lab where Kit works. Now Kit is suddenly faced not just with someone who was always that little bit better at everything than her, but also with the person whose secret she has kept buried deep in great fear.
Kit has been unable to accept Diane once she became aware of what her friend had done. The secret feels to Kit like “a tumour lashed to [her] insides” making her feel “cramps like an animal crawling inside [her] ovaries” and she rapidly pulls away from Diane, even though she is aware that Diane’s admission is a confirmation of their friendship: “She’d shared something with me, something as intimate as if she’d let me between those long, locked legs of hers, and now I was pulling away.” Over a decade later, when Kit is faced with Diane not just as a new colleague, but also as a potential competitor for a highly coveted position in a research laboratory, she is shoved back into being that teenage girl who knew too much, but could not share the burden of her best friend’s albatross. “My [mother] always says, you don’t have a self until you have a secret” was what the teenaged Diane, “needy, full of thunder and consequence” had said. As an adult scientist she remains equally, entirely, self-contained, focused and ambitious — everything other women would admire and many men would fear.
Crime fiction writer Megan Abbott’s latest thriller is a novel of astounding economy that is artfully crafted, visceral and sensuous
Dr Severin’s lab, in which Kit slogs away to prove herself, has just been granted funds for a potentially breakthrough study on PMDD — premenstrual dysphoric disorder. This is a heightened, far worse and much less understood form of premenstrual stress and very little is known about its causes. Here Abbott also reminds us of the vagaries of scientific studies: much more funding is available for research on erectile dysfunction than for “women’s issues”, despite the fact that these issues cause far more pain to far more people. PMDD, we learn, has been used as a defence for women who have committed terrible, violent acts, murderous rampages and the like. Kit tells us that “those are extreme cases, but they’re the ones we discuss in the lab. They’re easier to talk about than the average PMDD patient suffering her slow burn of monthly anguish, crying jags, bad thoughts whirring, boomeranging all day, the crushing thunk of insomnia, lying in bed, sweat soaked, waiting for the blood to come.”
It is this study for which Diane is hired, immediately reducing Kit’s chances of being part of the much coveted project as now she is no longer the only woman scientist in the lab, expected to “know more, know differently, know something about the purple marrow of female rage. The fear all men have that there’s something inside us that shifts, and turns. A living thing, once dormant, stirring now, and filled with rage.” One night, Kit — though she cannot blame her own actions on PMDD — releases the demons Diane had shared with her, and from then on things spiral out of control.
As always, Abbott’s writing is tight, taut — she sheds all the fat in this muscular, lean novel. The story is like the characters themselves, who run cross-country: strong yet lithe, sharply defined, determined and powerful. It is also overwhelming, weighted and loaded like a gun pointed to the head, forcing you to look, look, look into the darkest, most secret reaches of the female soul. Abbott writes with astounding economy; there isn’t an image, a reference or a thread in excess in Give Me Your Hand, whether it’s someone quoting Macbeth or studying Hamlet, a Freudian metaphor or a reference to a Velvet Underground song: it is all artfully crafted, visceral and sensuous. The air in a tense room can press “faces with thickish fingers”; Kit believes “we all feel we have something banked down deep inside just waiting for its moment, the slow gathering of hot blood”; “the bad things you do become part of you, literally. This is no metaphor. They become part of you on a cellular level, in the blood” and that “when your [mother] is gone, the thing no one ever tells you is that the little compass needle inside keeps spinning around and around, never finding north.”
I guess I always knew, in some subterranean way, Diane and I would end up back together. We are bound, ankle to ankle. A monstrous three-legged race. Accidental accomplices. Wary conspirators. Or Siamese twins, fused in some hidden place. It’s that powerful, this thing we share. A murky history, its narrative near impenetrable. We keep telling it to ourselves, noting its twists and turns, trying to make sense of it. And hiding it from everyone else.
Sometimes it feels like Diane is a corner of myself broken off and left to roam my body, floating through my blood. — Excerpt from the book
Abbott writes in the vein of the classic noir stylists such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but she subverts the damsel-in-distress trope, and takes the classic femme fatale character — designed to embody male anxiety — to the next level by creating female characters who are sharp, full of shards and ready to implode or explode, each with equal violence.
Revelations of some secrets break relationships. Revelations of others form permanent bonds. Some particularly frightening secrets, once revealed, can do both. “Freud wrote about it a century ago,” writes Abbott, “how we rummage through the armoury of the past to retrieve the weapons needed to repeat, repeat, repeat past traumas. He said it was primitive, instinctual, destructive. Like a demon inside us all. And now we know it’s true. The brain itself is built with the battered beams of our early years. What the conscious mind forgets, the neurons remember.”
Abbott, however, has never forgotten what it was like to be a teenage girl, burdened with buried demons who — once she has grown — is still susceptible to be consumed by them the second she lets her guard down.
The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com
Give Me Your Hand
By Megan Abbott
Little, Brown and Company, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 11th, 2018