by Elizabeth Botsford
Published by Blaze Publishing
1998, 279 pages
Buy it online
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Flawed heroes have always had a place in fiction; an important one, at that. How can we begin to see that which is clear if we don't have something at least slightly out-of-focus to compare it with? Margaret Laurence's Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel (1964) is a classic example. Shipley lives her life outside of the light and dies without really ever seeing it. And we mourn for her: for the things she's missed so nearly. Shipley's flaws are a big part of what makes The Stone Angel sing.
The main character in Elizabeth Botsford's Fall Girl is also flawed. But her flaws invite less empathy, perhaps because many of her actions seem so casually unconscionable. Almost as though the author was unaware of how deeply flawed her creation was.
Zöe Carmichael is a British-born financial trader working in Hong Kong at the time of the late 1980s stock market crash. The 25-year-old self-admitted "big hair girl" is vain, selfish and self-abusive and demonstrates a strikingly low sense of self-esteem and personal power throughout our encounter with her.
We meet her on the eve of her 25th birthday; in fact the crash is announced in the middle of a party in her honor. Panic commences: people are sobbing and fleeing and Zöe's boss throws herself off the roof. At the center of all of this craziness, Zöe begins to feel the first laps of fear. She has a lot to be afraid of. She's been skimming portions of her client's investments into a tidy nest egg someplace that never gets fully explained because Zöe spends most of the book in relative poverty. She lives off first one man and then another and, at one point, coming on to a piano player at a party in the hopes that he'll take her home so she'll have a place to sleep.
Fall Girl comes, at times, very close to being a really excellent read. Despite her faults, Zöe is an engaging, well-drawn character and you can't help but hope for her redemption: but it never comes. She spends all of her time in Fall Girl thrashing about without much effectiveness, alternately using and being used; blaming and being blamed and never really seeming to come to a place where she recognizes that she's sleeping in a bed of her own creation: even if it's being paid for by someone else.
The Hong Kong detail is rich and ripe: Botsford obviously knows the city well and manages to bring her readers a taste of late colonial Hong Kong life: in the fast lane. But some of the period detail -- for it is a period piece -- is flawed. At one point, for instance, Zöe considers that one of her actions will not be "politically correct," a term that wouldn't be coined until several years in the future.
Despite the book's failings, Botsford has an eye for detail so sharp, it almost overcomes some of Fall Girl 's problems.
The cajoling voice of her former ballet teacher drifted across her stream of consciousness. "Chin up, girls." The storm had died, leaving a still chill in the air. It was a briskness she was familiar with, and as she walked, her gait began to resemble that of her youth, the rhythmic skipping of a formal dancer in the disco age.
Even Zöe's light step sank into the mud and pebbles congealing beneath her feet. The trees dripped raindrops onto her hair. Wetness tickled as it blended with her body heat. She felt elation in her rosy cheeks and her freedom. Emerging from a year of sleep deprivation, weeks of worry and two days, what seemed like an eternity, too frightened to leave a strange house, storm-cleansed air made her want to shout for joy.
Joyous passages like this make it possible to keep reading. That and the hope that Zöe will ultimately begin to see the light and find her own power. Alas, it doesn't happen. And a book that could easily have been wonderful fails to find its wings. | February 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.