Book review: Viral

MANY of us who got our teenage romances, rebellions and rows over with before the era of Snapchat and Vine are truly grateful for this fortunate sequence of events. 

Helen Fitzgerald

Faber & Faber, £12.99

We had to feed coins into a public phone box to arrange to meet a friend and we had to wait until the camera film was processed to see 26 (possibly blurry) holiday snaps, but our rants and weird fads are mostly forgotten except by old friends.

In Viral, author Helen Fitzgerald, a mum of two children herself, takes a look at how it might affect a teen if the worst thing they did is captured on one, or many camera phones, and goes viral.

The tale is told mainly from the viewpoint of the teenage girl who does something really stupid but pays a hefty price. 

Fitzgerald manages to find the perfect line between blaming the girl who did, indeed, behave foolishly and painting her as a saintly victim of faceless high-tech baddies.

Sensible Su goes on a post-exam holiday to Magaluf where the aim of the holiday is to drink cheap shots and score with as many guys as possible. 

Su is logical, calm and studious so when she gets involved in a sleazy nightclub ‘game’ she is acutely aware of the prurient glee enjoyed by so many people when video of the event quickly goes viral.

It’s not just Su who’s affected by the torrent of vitriolic condemnation that flows from online gawkers and tabloid papers though. 

Her parents are well-developed characters who try to cope with emotions wildly veering from anger — at literally everyone involved — to grief for the destruction of the loving little girl they raised. 

Along the way they try to come up with ways to tackle a ‘trending’ item; contemplate chasing down the people who spread the video; and try to maintain a career in the public eye when colleagues and clients are sniggering.

Su’s mother, Ruth, has a black and white view of the incident: her little daughter was sexually assaulted and the men involved are criminals; and the people who encouraged it— including Su’s sister, Leah — are in the wrong.

Fitzgerald has a superb eye for family dynamics. The moment when Ruth squarely plonks the blame at Leah’s feet using the Full. Stop. Way. Of. Talking. That. Furious. Parents. Have would be funny if it wasn’t so scary here.

To the teens online, Su is just the latest hilarious video until someone is beheaded or whatever, like. 

To the club owners and a scary amount of men, Su is yet another drunken slutty teen behaving badly while on holiday.

And Su herself has no idea who she is anymore.

The first half of Viral is just brilliantly done — a real page-turner. 

I was afraid the second half was going to turn into a superhero vengeance novel but Fitzgerald is too sharp for that. 

And beyond one deus ex Machina leap the ending is far more subtle and realistically satisfying than I had feared.

Parents of every teen with a mobile phone — and phone-wielding teens themselves — would do well to read this. 

And if you’re shocked or disgusted by the gritty opening sentence then You. Really. Need. To. Read. This. Book.


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