Normal | Graeme Cameron | 2015 | Mira | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book
It’s difficult to judge what makes a human being ‘normal’ but I can assure you of one thing – there is nothing normal about Graeme Cameron’s main character. He might be nameless but he’s no Everyman. He’s a serial killer and he’s very good at it. His victims tend to be young women, girls who catch his eye with their zest for life, the colour in their cheeks, their optimistic trust in the future – all of which he snuffs out. From the grizzly opening pages, the reader can be left in no doubt as to the nature of our nameless unusual narrator as he describes the dismemberment of the first of his victims that we encounter, Sarah. But there’s something rather curious going on. At the same time that she is dehumanised, chopped up into more convenient chunks, some of which might even be tasted, we are guided around her bedroom and her life, shown her cuddly toys, introduced to her interests and hopes. It’s impossible not to like her at the same time that we are supposed to begin a narrator-reader relationship with the man who reduced her to unrecognisable lumps of flesh and bone, all described with a touch of the blackest humour.
The murder of Sarah is to change everything for the killer. He is interrupted by Erica, Sarah’s friend and neighbour, and from that moment the killer has to deal with new feelings, a new sense of awareness, a new craving for the normal. He might lock Erica up in a cage beneath his garage, he might remain confident that he will take her out to the woods and hunt her down like a dog crazed by the scent of a deer, but he recognises something different about Erica. She can look him in the eye and there’s something about that look that makes him want to win her approval and this challenges his confidence and his whole nature. For the first time he feels stirrings of compassion, even love, for a young woman. Ironically, those feelings are not for Erica.
For much of Normal we witness a man reborn with all of the awkwardness that this involves. Much of it is very funny indeed as he spends more than he should on comforts for Erica’s cage. Humour also comes from the banter between the two. Erica is an extraordinary character, possibly the star of the piece, and she has some of the best lines, although there is something rather appealing about the narrator’s exasperation as one senses that he’d feel much happier if he could get back on with his killing.
Not that the killing stops. It doesn’t. And this mixture of humour and horror makes Normal a dark book indeed. We are introduced to more of the women that the killer allows to enter his life, not all of whom he will allow to stay alive, but there are one or two who provoke the most tender of feelings in this man so devoid of tenderness until now. One of the most interesting relationships in the novel is between the killer and Ali Green, the determined police officer who has caught his scent. The police make regular appearances through the novel and it’s up to the reader to decide how successfully evasive they would like the killer to be.
Normal is an intriguing, fast and fun read. It is most certainly unusual. However, I did have issues with it. Not all of the characters are as rounded as I would have liked – for instance Rachel has half the dimension of Annie, Erica and other women in the novel and yet she has an especially strong influence on the killer. My main issue with the novel, though, is that my sympathy never moved from one young woman in particular who meets a terrible end at this man’s hands. There is also a scene towards the end which horrified me. This is a bloody novel and there is regular violence but there are a few scenes which really disturbed me and meant that I would never share the laugh outloud amusement that some readers have mentioned. It also meant that I didn’t really accept how far the killer wanted his personality to change. He was, is and always will be a killer.
Nevertheless, Graeme Cameron achieves something rather special with Normal. He presents a serial killer’s story in his own words, creating a fascinating narrator who sees the world in a way that is both terrifying and humorous. He does indeed appear to be normal. And that is the most frightening aspect of this memorable novel. The killer wants to be normal but all the time that is exactly how he appears to those for whom he is the last thing they see.