Ryan, Iain. The Spiral. London: Echo Publishing, 2021. RRP $29.99, 336pp, ISBN: 9781760686178.
Warning: review may contain spoilers.
Crime fiction has seen somewhat of a revolution in recent years as female characters are pulled from the passive, traditional role of victim and catapulted into much more active and powerful positions. Iain Ryan’s The Spiral is one such novel. Rather than a cast of endless female victims, it boasts an army of active, aggressive, whip-smart women who are the focus and drive of the narrative.
I first came across the book while preparing to host a panel on ‘The Female Lead’ at the 2021 Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival. I could use the usual descriptors of The Spiral being a ‘page turner’ and ‘gripping’ and ‘unputdownable’, but none of them quite hit the mark. Instead, I will simply say this; I read it in four hours and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
The Spiral is an accomplished, innovative and genre-bending novel that combines a crime thriller with fantasy and ‘choose your own adventure’. In it, academic Erma Bridges is shot by her research assistant Jenny, who then turns the gun on herself. As Erma recovers and tries to pick up the work that Jenny had started, she discovers that something is not quite what it seems. Erma is researching the ‘choose your own adventure’ genre of YA books, and Jenny’s exclusive interview with the famous but reclusive author of a popular series has gone missing. As Erma tries to retrieve it, she finds herself plunged further and further into a dark and dangerous world.
One of the most notable things about The Spiral is this upending of convention in casting women in lead roles, but it’s not just Erma who has agency and power in this novel. Jenny is characterised as strong and independent in her own way, so much so that Erma is threatened by her and men are intimidated by her.
I liked her for a lot of reasons but mainly because she wasn’t a sweet woman. She didn’t aim to please strangers. She appeared to have so much sly self-loathing in her that it made her unassailable, outspoken, interesting. (13-14)
Ryan has characterised his female antagonist as embodying everything that women stereotypically shouldn’t be, but his skill lies in his ability to create well-rounded characters whose flaws define them as much as their strengths. Jenny’s weakness of ‘self-loathing’ is flipped on its head and becomes the basis of her power in Erma’s eyes; it gives Jenny an edge that makes her stand out from all the other candidates for the job.
Erma shows physical and mental strength that could be considered ‘unusual’ for a woman—a victim of a violent crime, no less—in the wake of Jenny’s attack. She makes herself physically strong and trains to be able to defend herself.
And pre-Jenny that’s how I fought: in anticipation of getting hit […] But that’s all gone. Now I’m aggressive. I have long arms and yet I come in close. (42)
Here Erma has used her experience of violence to develop herself, to actively engage her opponents rather than keep them at arms-length. It has changed her, but in a way that makes her embrace and understand her strength, that makes her determined to be the aggressor and not the victim in dangerous situations.
The ‘choose your own adventure’ aspect of The Spiral is more than just a clever gimmick that mirrors Erma’s research topic. It affords a way to consider how victims or survivors of trauma might respond to those acts of violence. Erma, as the victim of violence, begins to dream of herself as the warrior, Sero. Sero is neither man nor woman, nor do they often know themselves what they are or the kind of body they inhabit. Just as victims of violent crime often dissociate from their physical self as a way to escape the body on which the assault has been exacted, so too does Erma.
When I’m alone in my office, in my old office chair, something happens. I shut down. I leave my body. I daydream. I’m not sure where I go. I’m not sure what I’m thinking about but the trance is broken by the phone. (93)
Rather than remain inactive in this dissociative state, Erma instead becomes a warrior. When she dreams or daydreams she is still fighting in this other body, never stopping to let herself become that passive victim.
The Spiral is an incredible book, full of originality, sass, vibrant characters and kick-ass females. If you’re looking for something that will blow your mind in the best way possible, pick up this book and get reading.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.