Toto Among the Murderers by Sally Morgan (Hachette, 2020), 344pp, $34.99
The 1970s was a bumper decade for serial killers. Despatching people with regularity were, in the US, the Hillside Strangler, Son of Sam, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy; and in Britain, Peter Sutcliffe, Harold Shipman, Dennis Nilsen, Trevor Hardy and Fred and Rosemary West. Five out of those last six were operating in the North of England. In calling her debut novel Toto Among the Murderers, Sally Morgan can hardly be accused of hyperbole. There were plenty to go around.
Morgan’s vivid account of what it was like to be a young woman in Yorkshire in 1973 won her this year’s Portico Prize, awarded to novels that best evoke the spirit of the North of England. In this case, the spirit is not of summer wine but of a time when Northern women, as the Portico Prize judges’ chairman put it, ‘lived in mortal fear of sexual violence made explicit by daily headlines about mass murderers’.
This novel certainly covers sexual violence, as well as psychological and physical abuse and the curtailment of freedoms and opportunities for anyone who identified as female. But though Morgan makes it plain that being a young woman back then could be tough going, she has not written a grim book. Toto has a lightness of tone that makes it feel like that most ambiguous of compliments, an easy read. But while it does tear along, propelled by an action-packed plot, there’s a toughness and grit to it. Even when the dialogue sparkles, it does so above a rolling rumble of anger. Every interaction has layers of ambiguity. And while this novel may have an upbeat ending, the journey to it is fraught. Morgan has pulled off a terrifically adept balancing act.
The novel alternates between the first-person viewpoints of two young women just out of art school, Nel and Toto, though it’s Toto that Nel expends most of her thought and energy on. Toto’s real name is Jude Totton, and Nel gave her the nickname because her friend feels ‘the same concern for consequences as that little dog from The Wizard of Oz … always running off without warning … biting witches’ legs’. Nel warns Toto that someday one of the witches will bite her back.
Toto, Nel and a third best friend, Jo, have recently moved into a flat in Chapeltown, a notoriously crime-ridden part of Leeds. The flat was Toto’s choice and Nel is less than thrilled. ‘People get murdered here,’ she says.
This is not the deterrent Nel might hope. Toto gets ‘a thrill at her words’: ‘I like danger. I like to be frightened.’ Toto genuinely believes this to be true, and her risky behaviour includes hitch-hiking alone, sex with strangers and drinking to the point of blackout. Her justification for continuing is the fact that nothing terrible has happened to her so far. ‘You don’t need to worry about me,’ she assures Nel.
Nel does worry. Constantly. Her preoccupation for Toto stems from genuine affection but also a tendency to adopt the role of caregiver. She feels the same about Toto as she does about her boyfriend, Simon: ‘They’re both so bloody useless at the normal things in life. If I don’t care for them, who will?’
Morgan sets up this dynamic in our minds—Toto feckless and immature, Nel the sensible grown-up—and immediately begins to dismantle it. Toto’s not hurting anyone, so why shouldn’t she have the right to go wherever and do whatever she pleases? If she were a man, no one would judge. Why is it always the responsibility of the woman to protect herself? Rather than labelling her irresponsible, should we not applaud Toto for her courage, her iconoclasm?
And there are questions about Nel. Why is she so neglectful of her own needs and desires? Why does she put up with Simon, who is clearly a narcissist incapable of loving anyone but himself? Is it really that sensible to take only the road that pleases others—Simon, Nel’s parents—or is this a sign of weakness, a lack of spine? Nel’s mother once boiled a sheep’s heart and served it to Nel’s father as a symbolic protest against his deceitful behaviour. Nel’s own heart is being ignored, and if she doesn’t care for it, who will?
Around these two, Morgan offers us portraits of different relationships to contrast and compare. Jo and Hank, and Nick and Gen, provide positive models that prioritise kindness, respect and easy give-and-take. Denny and Maria in the arts commune show us the cost of one loving more than the other, while well-off Callie and Hugo and their so-called open marriage show how cruel people can become when they are starved of genuine affection and can no longer give, only take.
The awakening for both Toto and Nel comes gradually, and Morgan steps us to this point through a series of escalating crises that reveal more about the characters, both to themselves and to us, the readers. Toto falls into the grip of a psychologically manipulative relationship because it is the first time someone has offered her what seems like love. She comes to see why she has previously avoided commitment, but not before she goes on one last lone hitch-hiking ‘jaunt’ where, for the first time, it hits home that she is in real and imminent peril.
Nel also comes late to realising the danger of her own situation. Her crisis point is sudden and brutal; the clues were there but she chose to ignore them. Now she must deal with the anger and hurt that she has suppressed for so long and decide whether or not she can forgive herself.
Toto Among the Murderers is set almost half a century ago, but the questions Morgan raises are valid today. The risks to women’s lives and freedoms still exist, and women who experience violence or abuse are still being burdened with a portion of the blame. But the optimism of the book’s ending gives us heart that we have the strength to fight the demons, whether they’re inside or out in the world. And that we have the right to relish that strength and revel in being, in Toto’s words, ‘fucking bulletproof’.
CATHERINE ROBERTSON is a bestselling New Zealand author of contemporary fiction and co-owner of Good Books, an independent bookshop in Wellington. In 2020 she was the CNZ/International Institute of Modern Letters Writer in Residence. Catherine is a regular guest on Jesse Mulligan’s Book Critic on RNZ, and is on the board of Verb Wellington. Her latest novel, Spellbound was published in 2021 by Penguin Random House.