This title was rather kindly sent to me by the publishers, Troubador Publishing Limited / The Book Guild. This review has also been published to NetGalley, GoodReads, LinkedIn, Amazon UK, to The Book Guild website, and my social media accounts.
fLy is an unusual type of fly. fLy is the narrator of this grubby, witty, insensitive story that follows the unhappy lives of two couples that both live on the campus of an elite English private boarding school. fLy lives with Tristan and Hannah; Tristan, an English teacher, is infatuated with one of his students, Sasha Burnham and Hannah, his wife, battles with alcohol dependency, an eating disorder and low self-esteem. But Hannah’s world changes when she realises that she is the object of desire for Jean Lempriere, a colleague of Tristan’s.
Hannah has made friends with the other couple on the campus, Fi and Raymond. Raymond is the Head of Economics and a bully and Fi is his frumpy, down trodden wife that confides all in Hannah. fLy humorously reveals the sex role-playing that Raymond introduces into his married life, and divulges the dishonesty that plays a vital part in the unfolding infidelity that unites both couples.
fLy’s raw narrative seizes our trust in all that is divulged ensuring the reader knows, at last, what it means to be the ‘fly on the wall’!
Sometimes, upon reading a book, I’m compelled to try to find out something else about it and its author, about its context, in order to build up a bit of the puzzle that, in fact, every book is. fLy by M.Z has been one such instance, though this time success might have completely eluded me.
I had been quite intrigued with the synopsis when I came across the book, and on that basis alone I decided that it would be interesting to find out what the book could possibly be all about and, in particular, how it went about being what it was about. After all, it is not every day that you see a book where the narrator is, erm, a fly.
Of all things, right? All possible embodiments for a narrator? A fly.
Yes. I know. Flies are not exactly the most endearing of creatures, and therefore not that frequently found anthropomorphised in literature. But a fly as an omniscient narrator? And a “witty” fly, at that? Telling the story from its fly point of view and its fly-brain understanding of things? Mmm. No wonder the synopsis included the words “grubby”, “raw”, and “insensitive”.
This book is for you, grab it now!, the little imp on my shoulder kept prodding me on the ear, tugging at my earlobe. That fly narrator had indeed tickled my fancy like nothing else I could think of. Moreover, my first cursory read of the synopsis had evoked some vague image of Kingsley Amis at this best. To say that I had been intrigued would be a serious understatement. I did therefore take the gamble, and the book, fully aware that anything deemed politically incorrect would potentially be a nightmare to review.
So, how did the gamble go? Oh! Quite well, as it happens. It turns out that fLy does not have any regard for our human rules or mores, those of what constitutes fair conversation topics included, as you would expect. It is a fly. And flies do have different standards — for everything. And that too was to be expected.
What you wouldn’t expect is anything like what this book turned out to be — though to be fair, I didn’t quite know what to expect to begin with, apart from something completely different, possibly even unique, involving a fly and perhaps vaguely reminiscent of The Old Devils. And, in its difference and uniqueness, fLy does not disappoint: I have never read anything quite like it. Would I read it again? Will I read the next instalment of fLy’s “raw”, “insensitive”, and “grubby” narrative? I’ll let you know in a little while.
And here we now are. Because “raw”, “insensitive” and “grubby” is exactly how our fly’s narrative goes. It’s what we get. Because fLy… Well, fLy is a fly, lest we forget such fact, and therefore fascinated with everything and anything remotely grimy and all things dirt (and dirty). Rot and decay, decomposition, putrefaction: that’s what a fly knows best, what she knows most about. All its senses are perfectly attuned to the detection of organic materials and all the minute changes therein; its little fly sensory array revel in scents and smells and tastes and flavours of all things gross, from excreta to other bodily fluids and secretions. The grossest, the slimiest, the better.
The same goes for moral grossness and sliminess, as far as fLy is concerned. fLy is an old and very wise, and apparently quite knowledgeable fly, who understands a lot about human nature, and knows that what humans deal in, what they get up to, is in no way of a better or cleaner nature than what all flies wallow in, which is, erm, well, what humans and other animals secrete and excrete. fLy sees absolutely no difference between the two things: what the humans she observes unconsciously, bodily offer to her fly delectation, and the actions and activities she observes them consciously, deliberately, manipulatively engaging in, and in which fLy equally delights.
fLy seems indeed not to see any difference between material and moral sliminess. Both are grimy and grim, and she’s not choosy: human actions are dishonest and disreputable, dirty, grimy, slimy, gross, just as human excretions and secretions are dirty, grimy, slimy, gross, just like her enjoyment of the latter, and very particularly of the former, is equally deemed gross and dirty and sordid. As far as human morals are concerned, fLy wallows in everything we civilised humans would either ostensibly shy away from, or mention only in the most faintly whispered gossip. And that’s something else, in itself; I’m sure fLy has something to say about it.
At the end of the book, we are left to feel that the level of sordidness is the same, be it the human or the fLy proclivities we focus on, the human or the fLy moral standards and compass. Being a fly, fLy willingly consumes all it is afforded to by its human subjects. The more, the better. And the dirtier, more sordid it is, the more delectable, and delectably human, fLy finds it to be.
And we too, the readers, find enjoyment in fLy’s narrative. Ring any bells? Much?
So. Would I read this book again? Very honestly, and aware as I am how much a second reading often reveals hidden details, I probably will. And will I read any more adventures of fLy in humanland? Oh, very, very definitely. This book is something else. It’s unique and in a category very much of its own.
fLy by M.Z. is a very well written book, very creative and innovative, quite entertaining and even hilarious in parts, while at the same time forcing us to plunge into the world of fLy, which the reader cannot help but find grotesque and distasteful but absolutely fascinating. It forces us also to confront fLy’s observations about human nature, mostly through its comparisons between human morals and rot and decay, between human actions and excretions and secretions, and the value each has to a voyeuristic outsider such as fLy.
And fLy is indeed a masterful narrator, as much as it is a willing and crafty witness of human behaviour. Its descriptions are incredibly detailed and graphic, and it skilfully depicts its human subjects in all their disgraceful antics. The characters fLy paints are full and life-size, and they make us laugh, and commiserate, and bounce back and forth between liking and disliking, understanding and rejecting, accepting and deploring. We end the book in full knowledge that our own, human world is, in its own way, just as grotesque and distasteful, and perhaps just as fascinating, as that of fLy’s.
From a detached, distanced perspective, as we reach the last word, we realise that voyeurism — and that we all are, potentially, circumstantially, simultaneously, both the voyeur and the watched thing, and pawns and kings in our own and in other people’s game — may indeed be all this novel is fundamentally about.
As I finished the book, I wanted to find out something more, anything that would contextualise it for me. The only thing I was able to find was the two-line author bio…
Author M. Z. lives in Epsom, Surrey and wrote this story after reminiscing about the long letters that she used to write about her experiences at university where she studied English and American Literature.
And I wonder. As I remember the details of the dedication and acknowledgements pages of this book, I look at the above bio and I wonder if this is indeed a roman à clef, or whether that bio is but part of the whole, of the larger fictional construct. Well done, M.Z., because I very much doubt we, the readers, will ever really get to know.
Genre pegging: general fiction
Verdict: a very clever and accomplished novel, and a fascinatingly entertaining read; recommended
Shelves: my favourite books; fiction; one to keep