Review: Cherry by Matt Thorne

Helen Falconer is frustrated by Matt Thorne's Booker-longlisted Cherry

by Matt Thorne
197pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99

Steve Ellis is 33 and hasn't had sex in 12 years. On odd occasions, he visits an Angus Steak House, and sometimes his colleague Tom, a fellow teacher, invites him round to dinner. But mostly he stays home to watch TV. Then one night Steve goes to a pub. No one is there but an old man who buys him a drink. They listen to a Frank Sinatra song. Then they go back to Steve's flat and watch an hour-long video Steve made of unsuspecting women passing in the street. The old man weeps, and borrows the tape.

Steve receives a visit from a smartly dressed Indian man called Soumenda, who asks Steve to fill out a questionnaire describing his "perfect woman". Steve wants a blue-eyed brunette called Cherry with an hour-glass figure; she would be solvent, shy, honest, sincere, confident and "sexual in the best sense of the word, by which I mean needing sex to be mature... although I definitely don't want her telling me about her experiences with other men".

Steve receives directions to a hotel where he is given a free drink. Cherry joins him, and they retire to her bedroom. He wants to know if she finds him attractive, and when she claims she does he snaps: "Then why have I been single for the last twelve years?" He stalks off. Two days later he relents and returns, asking her: "Can I do what I want with you?" They begin a sexual relationship, in which he is amazed to find that he can orgasm every single time "sometimes before her, usually afterwards, but always close enough for neither of us to feel overtaxed".

Cherry moves into Steve's flat, although his bedroom ceiling has collapsed. Before long her toenails fall off, and soon she is very sick. Steve is alarmed: "If I'd known what a terrible sign black vomit was - if I'd known what it meant - I would have insisted she went to the doctor, hell, to the hospital." Instead he leaves her with the woman Cherry claims is her mother.

The old man from the pub contacts Steve and tells him that if he wants Cherry to live then he must assassinate Tom, who is actually a force for evil known as the Fox. What is Steve to do? Well, as the publisher's blurb has it: "Some of us will do anything for love... Anything."

All this makes for an enjoyable opening to Thorne's sixth novel (six by the tender age of 30!). The boy writer's cold literary technique is well suited to the self-centred ramblings of a sociopath such as Steve; the same style also generates undeniably eye-popping sex scenes - Thorne's unemotional attention to naked detail can trigger the appropriate pornographic image far better than the shy lyrical evocations of, say, Sebastian Faulks.

Yet having chomped speedily through the book's beginning, one suddenly notices that there is only a smattering of pages left for Thorne to deliver the novel's middle and end. Ominous sign. The more pages turned, the more one fears to stumble upon the lines "...and then I woke up and it was all a dream". Could it be that Cherry (and I mean the novel, not the character) is merely a piece of pretty bait designed to make hatchet murderers out of innocents? However, as Thorne must be comfortably aware, only a true psychopath among reviewers would seek to reveal the ending of a book... even if they could figure it out.

· Helen Falconer's Sky High is published by Faber


Helen Falconer

The GuardianTramp

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