British author Ellmann’s comic novels are becoming increasingly odd, as this fifth, about an obese, homicidal nurse with a passion for handbags, demonstrates.
Ellmann writes spry black comedies (Dot in the Universe, 2004, etc.) examining the futility of just about everything. Her quirky prose style (so VERY much is CAPITALIZED that OLD-FASHIONED EMPHASIS slips instead into MOCKERY) and emotional detachment—there is little love lost between reader and heroine—make for a challenging read. Having been fired from her last job in the pediatrics wing (mortality rates skyrocket whenever she’s around), desperate Jen becomes a nurse to a country doctor. Roger Lewis is a worse doctor than Jen is a nurse—his casual negligence has killed off much of the countryside—but no matter, Dr. Lewis is a handsome man with a cleft chin. Jen is a hateful creature, but she does love a few things: cargo pants (to hide her enormous behind); her remarkable collection of handbags; and Dr. Lewis. Soon the two are embroiled in a torrid affair, and then the two are engaged. But at the altar, Francine, the doctor’s belligerent receptionist with a penchant for cosmetic enhancement, reveals herself to be the doctor’s wife. Jen flees and soon finds the meaning of life (which, incidentally, has a fair amount to do with public nudity). Unfortunately, when she returns, her best friend and brother have been murdered, their body parts stashed in Jen’s prized handbags—a triple blow! The police finger her for the crime—someone that overweight must have a guilty conscience about something. In Ellmann’s cruel world, the medical profession is a dangerous sham; fat women are openly despised; and the only love that’s worthwhile is love of self.
Sharp, offbeat and occasionally off-putting; Ellmann delivers a rarity in the world of fiction—a comic novel of ideas.