An interviewer once complained to the novelist Claire Messud that one of her characters – the titular woman in The Woman Upstairs – was too “unbearably grim” to be likable, a problem that seems to afflict the women of literature far more than their male counterparts. “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” the interviewer prodded. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Messud responded. “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?…If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”
Cynthia, the simpering, scheming, covetous emotional sinkhole of New Zealander Annaleese Jochems’s assured debut novel, Baby, is alive and squirming; a memorable addition to the growing coterie of unapologetic antiheroines (dis)gracing the pages of contemporary fiction.
Cynthia has been waiting for “something momentous” to happen, nursing half-hearted dreams of TV stardom, but “nothing has happened at all”. The twentysomething spends her days in a kind of festering stupor: doing “things on Facebook”; sleeping with “very attractive, very tedious” boys; coddling her French bulldog, Snot-head; and taking private fitness classes with the formidably “unblemished” Anahera.
When Anahera arrives on her doorstep after abandoning her marriage, Cynthia fizzes into action. She empties her father’s bank account, and the two women drive to Paihia, a coastal town on New Zealand’s North Island, where they purchase a boat called Baby, and hide out in the harbour. “Both of us will become entirely new to ourselves!” she promises Anahera. “Just you wait!”
Wait is what they do – it is all Cynthia really knows how to do – but now she is waiting with purpose, waiting for Anahera to love her. “I’m so warm,” she thinks, “who could not want this warmth of me; to take me home, make a home for me, a home of me.” But Anahera doesn’t want to luxuriate in the yearning glow of Cynthia’s obsessive affections. She’s preoccupied with practical matters: their dwindling cash reserves and food supplies; Snot-head’s unsustainable sea sickness.
Every day Anahera swims out across the bay to a deserted island, leaving Cynthia alone to read supermarket romance novels and binge-watch The Bachelor on her phone. “Reality TV is society,” she decides, “it’s about limited resources.” When a love rival arrives, in the shape of a German tourist, she is suitably primed: “Anahera’s a whore, but Cynthia’s not worried. What she understands is this: their shame, and their pride too, are engines, whirring now. The game’s started, and Cynthia will play it.”
Baby is a claustrophobic novel – a cabin-fever dream – its action largely confined below decks, where the world fits together “like a tiny set of organs”. In this miniaturised space, Cynthia’s thwarted desire burns up the oxygen; but what exactly is it that she wants? “It’s not so easy,” Jochems writes, “to tell the difference between self-love and a firm expectation of love from someone else.”
There are echoes here of Megan Abbott, Emma Cline, Zoë Heller and Miranda July: writers drawn to the intricacies and ferocious possibilities of female friendship. There’s a dollop, too, of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley; a dash of Lord of the Flies. What Jochems adds is a cloying grotesqueness. Baby is a novel of close-quarters living: of masticating mouths and human stink; of piss and vomit, sunburn and bruises, pimples and dandruff; of new fat expanding under the skin. A novel of bodies.
When we first see Baby, moored in the harbour, Jochems describes “the sea clinging at its little hips like low-waisted pants”. To understand how Cynthia feels we must “catch the sensations so hot in her body, and hold them still enough to measure their edges”. But it is Baby’s first line that anchors the novel: “Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body,” the book begins.
Baby spends most of its time watching Cynthia watch Anahera: “There is such luxury in Anahera’s body,” Jochems writes, “such glory in it. All of her is the same brown, flexing into shades under the sun.” The female gaze, Cynthia proves, can be just as objectifying and entitled as the male. And just as exoticising; that Anahera may be Māori is intimated, but never explored. It is her body that Cynthia worships, deciphers and aches to possess (in both senses of the word).
There are implicit questions throughout this novel about the complexities of race, gender, power and identity in modern New Zealand, a place Cynthia describes as “our dirty country full of animals” with palpable, cryptic disgust (she “doesn’t know any farmers, but you only have to watch the news to know what sort of place this country is”). But Jochem’s narrative is a tale of veneers and facades – the selves we project and curate – and so such questions lurk, but never surface. Depending on the reader, this wilful exteriority will either prove the book’s undoing, or its triumph. For we know as much about Cynthia and Anahera at the end of Baby as we do at the beginning – these two women for whom an untimely death prompts as much distress as an emptied jar of Nutella.
Is Cynthia a monstrous sociopath, or simply a lonely, performative product of our Instagram age? How can we tell the difference? Perhaps, Baby posits with caustic glee, they are the same thing.
• Baby is published by Scribe (RRP £12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.