Frankie Cavanagh lands her dream job of a trader on the open-outcry exchange of LIFFE, the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange. The year is 1997, LIFFE is under danger from an electronic trading system, but as for now the mayhem of the trading pit is still the ever-exciting reality for Frankie and her (overwhelmingly male) co-workers and friends.
Frankie works hard and plays hard and the continuous juxtaposition of the adrenaline-fuelled dance of the trading floor and the drug-fuelled dance on the real dance-floors of the clubs; the come-down at the end of trading and the come-down from the pill high; all punctuated by the FTSE100 values, generates the main pulsating rhythm of Monaghan's novel.
With the new job, Frankie falls in lust with her married American boss Tom, and soon embarks on an affair with him, an affair that is more about the thrill and risk taking than the hedonistic pleasures. An archetypal sensation-seeker, addicted to the adrenaline rush of risk, she pushes the limits further and further in the pursuit of thrills. An escapee from the council estate in Ilford, where her working-class, widower father is still hoping she might one day provide him with a son-in-law who drives a white van and produce a couple of grandchildren, Frankie is viciously ambitious and doesn't do love - the references to the 'hidden shallows' abound in Starfishing.
Frankie's delivery takes a while to get used to: but eventually her voice becomes familiar and the tired similes, the pedestrian narrative, the matter-of-fact, hard-bitten vulgarity, the colourful and sensuous but by no means poetically florid expression of the drug experiences, all fall into place to become a very believable voice.
Starfishing sounds and reads just like the real-life account of a Frankie-like character might sound.
The descriptions of drug and alcohol altered states and behaviours delivered in Frankie's voice are indeed excellent and, one can't help but notice, very realistic: effortlessly and vividly differentiating between loved-up E high, the cocaine rush, the trippy states post-mushrooms and acid and their respective come-downs; all interspersed and mixed with numerous variations on the theme of getting drunk.
The narrative is well paced, and this pace increases as the novel progresses; from about mid-way Starfishing tumbles relentlessly towards more and more outrageous dares through the increasingly thickening haze of tiredness, drugs and booze.
It's probably not easy, for most readers, especially female ones, to identify with Frankie, or even to be sympathetic. The explanation hinted at and eventually provided felt like Monaghan's way of generating such sympathy for her character, and for me a very unnecessary one.
Frankie didn't need explaining by severe childhood trauma; her initially exhilarated but then increasingly vacuous thrill-seeking; her half-hidden desperation to escape the estate and that hypothetical white-vanned husband and children; her pessimistic, cynical world view all became merely symptoms of an emotionally damaged individual rather than expressions of underlying spirit of a particular time and place.
It made her less interesting and ultimately less meaningful. Luckily, the ending was very satisfactory, a rare case in novels with a extreme-behaviour-caused-by-trauma structure; and it is a huge redeeming feature of the novel.
I enjoyed Starfishing, possibly because it reminded me of my own game-playing, sensation-seeking times, but you don't need to be a reformed adrenaline junkie to find this a tense and enjoyable read: imagine well-written and very cynical chick-lit on acid and you won't be far wrong.
Recommended, but probably better borrowed than bought as I can't imagine wanting to read it again.
This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk
Paperback 288 pages
Chatto and Windus March 2009