I was prepared to be disappointed by this book. When curious about people with outsider status – immigrants, sex workers, prisoners, benefit claimants – the novelist’s temptation is to make victims, victims of sex workers in particular. Not a bit of it though. It’s easy to write victims. Kirstin Innes has worked a lot harder.
Fish Net focuses on Fiona Leonard, a single parent whose sister, Rona, has dumped a baby on Fiona and then walked out of her life. For years Fiona has been searching for her missing sister. Then a drunken chat with an old acquaintance at a wedding gives her a lead: that Rona may have got involved in the sex industry. It so happens that Fiona is currently temping at a company which is negotiating the development of a drop-in centre where working girls can hang out and get advice and check out the ‘ugly mugs’ gallery of clients you want to avoid. The local authority wants to bulldoze the drop-in and build a leisure complex to attract investment. Furious prostitutes demonstrate outside the company offices. Sympathising with their situation, and still investigating her sister’s disappearance, Fiona befriends them and is drawn deeper into their world of the missing.
Again, the big strength of Innes’s novel is that she refuses to see her characters as victims – or at least not just victims. Fiona meets a Polish escort named Anya who is in the business to work off her international students. She tells Anya: ‘I don’t understand how my sister – how anyone ends up doing this.’ Anya replies:
This question, it comes from a place where for a woman to work in the sex industry, it’s shameful, wrong… What you know is horror stories of rape and powerlessness, that teach us to prize our virtue, to keep our legs closed, that nice girls don’t do things. What you think you know is stereotypes about drug addiction, about desperate girls out there on the street. About the bodies that they find, whenever some fucking lunatic goes on a killing spree. And yes, this is all there; I am not stupid as to say to you these things don’t happen, and that they are not awful, but it is not a complete picture… what people call ‘the sex industry’ is not always, not completely, a bad thing. That just because a person sells their sexual skills, it does not mean that their life is – bam! forever ruined.
But it is hard for people in the UK to get past this shameful place. People aren’t accustomed to seeing sex as a transaction. With an increasing puritanism regarding pleasure – smoking, alcohol, junk food – coupled with a backdrop of sitcom prurience, we live in a culture where sex is sacralised and magnified and blown out of all proportion. (The fanatics who killed 129 in Paris this weekend apparently did so because it was ‘the city of prostitution’.) I remember watching an episode of Borgen where the fictional Danish PM Birgitte Nyborg has to make a hard choice about the criminalisation of sex work. She listens to women who have been abused as well as sex workers who are concerned that criminalisation would put their lives in danger. The episode struck me because you couldn’t imagine such a mature debate on this subject in Britain, fictionalised or not.
Fish Net has a raucous scene where Fiona attends a meeting at the drop in. A well-meaning representative from the council explains that in consolation for the closure of their local base, the local authority will help sex workers to leave the trade. ‘We believe that no woman should have to suffer the degradation of prostitution for a moment longer,’ the council officer declares. Rather than welcoming this, the sex workers are enraged. They feel patronised and see the council as putting their livelihoods and safety on the line. Even the brilliant and capable Anya is almost ruined forever by a tabloid sting related to the development (with a op eed titled ‘City’s vice girl shame: is immigration to blame?’)
Innes explores not just the degradation of prostitution but the degradation of modern life. Her respectable world is characterised by boring jobs, crap sports bars with glass walls, tedious get-togethers, unfulfilled wives and parents, screaming children and lairy guys on the make. Fiona becomes more impulsive and unpredictable, and enjoys winding up those she sees as increasingly part of a dull surface world. Yet Innes does not look down on her hapless straightlifers. She understands that some people do need to be rescued – hell, sometimes all of us need to be rescued. And she will make you re examine your beliefs.