In recent years there has been a revived interest in the freedoms and oppressions of the 1970s (Emma Cline’s The Girls was slackly based on the Manson family cult, while Elizabeth Wetmore’s Valentine unfurled in the aftermath of male violence in 1970s Texas), and Welsh-born writer Sally J Morgan’s debut novel also wrestles with how this age of seeming progression was simultaneously a perilous time to be a woman.
Morgan’s deep dive into the decade, recently awarded the Portico prize (offered to writing “that best evokes the spirit of the north of England”), reflects on her own close call with two of the UK’s most notorious serial killers. At age 21, while hitchhiking in Yorkshire, she was offered a lift by Fred and Rosemary West. Morgan’s fondness for catching a free ride is shared by her danger-chasing protagonist Jude Totton, nicknamed Toto, for whom “the edge between life and death glitters”.
The novel begins as this thrill-seeker moves with two friends, fellow art school graduates Nel and Jo, to the “roughest part of Leeds”, Chapeltown, “full of gangs that prey on the immigrants who can’t afford to live anywhere else”. Though the neighbourhood seems initially hostile – curses are scrawled across the front door – Toto fast befriends a local sex worker, Janice, and happens upon an anarchist alternative school where fugitives are occasionally hidden beneath the floorboards.
Toto’s motley hangouts are vividly captured, from the motorway (“a river of metal, a flow of shining paintwork”), to her favourite pub (“a poky collection of fusty rooms, full of art students, anarchists, Irish republicans, homosexuals and prostitutes”), while northern dialects are affectionately threaded into the dialogue. Though Morgan’s writing is bold, it is not subtle, with the emotions of her characters often glaringly on their sleeves: “The intensity of being alive stuns me,” Toto narrates. “It’s so incomprehensible. So fucking unbelievably beautiful.”
An ambient smattering of news headlines denoting attacks or disappearances of women gradually crescendos, yet Toto remains uncompromising in her daredevilry. She is nearly assaulted twice, by ex-soldiers implicated in Bloody Sunday, and then by an acquaintance, from which she emerges like a “drunken Boadicea, raising her arms in triumph after a night burning Rome to the ground”. Toto’s encounter with the Wests is comparatively fleeting, but the dread of them lurking in their unobtrusive pale-grey car lingers, finally bringing an end to Toto’s recklessness.
Not all Morgan’s cast are left unscathed: housemate Nel’s narrative captures the insidiousness of male violence (on her relationship with boyfriend Simon, she muses that “Weakness and cruelty sit so close together in some people”), while the novel has an uneasy relationship with class and voyeurism, with the poorest residents of Chapeltown (the book’s truest victims) mildly fetishised by Toto but given little narrative space to breathe. Toto Among the Murderers is both propelled and held back by its earnestness, an honesty that is brought to bear on its meanderings around northern England’s “crumpled landscape”, its flirtations with death and on the queer love story that gradually blossoms between its two protagonists.