Viral, by Helen Fitzgerald, explores the impact on a family of public humiliation. In a world where image capture is ubiquitous and data can be shared around the world in an instant, it ponders the potential fallout of behaving in a manner that society finds unacceptable. There are those who seek attention on social media, who value high numbers of followers, views and likes. The proliferation of cameras means that privacy is now a rarity. Other’s missteps are regarded as legitimate entertainment with little regard for the effect such sharing will have on the individuals concerned.
The opening line sets the tone. I was concerned that this was merely a shock tactic but the author is savvy enough to build upon the more nuanced aspects of reactions triggered in order to retain the reader’s attention. Many of the subsequent events played out are equally appalling. The double standards highlighted are more powerful for the subtlety with which they are presented.
Four teenage girls go on holiday to Magaluf where they drink heavily, party and seek no ties sex with like minded boys. Leah did not want her virginal, studious, sober, sister to be there but their mother would not countenance this as an option. Sensible Su was to keep Leah in check. Their mother did not appreciate that Leah was the one wielding the sibling power.
On the morning that the girls are due to leave their holiday apartment, Su wakes to discover that a video of her performing sex acts on a circle of boys in a nightclub has been shared on the internet and gone viral. Grabbing just a few possessions she flees leaving Leah to return to their parents’ home without her. Su hopes that if she lies low attention will wane. The views of the video keep climbing. The press becomes involved.
The girls’ parents are distraught. Father wishes to diffuse the situation without truly understanding how to make this happen. Mother desires revenge, to burden the perpetrators with as much pain as her beloved family are suffering. She struggles to come to terms with the lack of protection her profession, the law, offers for victims of this very modern problem.
As Su tries to work through in her own mind what has happened, and to evade the good intentions of her family, Leah steps up to support their parents who are falling apart. The author cleverly shows just how devastating society’s condemnation can be. This is a loving and supportive family but it is made up of individuals. The world outside their walls is eager to feed on details of their history, to judge and to condemn.
The action never stops. The pain that this family has to go through is exacerbated by their inability to control what is happening and the stress this puts them under. It is not just the teenagers who behave foolishly. The reader knows that attempts to fight back are high risk but it is hard not to empathise with the parents’ need to act rather than passively accept a situation they would never have envisaged, a situation which appears to have broken the lives they worked so hard to achieve.
The denouement is neatly executed. It did not leave me feeling satisfied but, under the circumstances, perhaps nothing could. The story vividly paints the imperfect world in which we live.
This is a fascinating subject and the author tackles it with aplomb. The tale is terrifying in its realism with whatever literary licence taken never detracting from the knowledge that this type of nightmare could happen. There must be few who have never done anything foolish. It would be good to think that the thoughts and discussion this book will provoke may trigger a kinder reaction to the next image or video that is shared without consent.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber.