Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Today’s social media has allowed us to connect with each other as never before. But it’s not without its risks, as we all know. Several contemporary authors have explored the impact of social media on our lives, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve done it. Let’s take a look at one such novel today, and turn the spotlight on Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?
Yvonne Mulhern has recently moved from London to Dublin with her husband, Gerry, and their newborn daughter, Róisín. Yvonne wasn’t sure about the move, but it represents a real career opportunity for Gerry, who will now have the chance to produce his own TV show. And that means more money and security for the whole family.
The move itself has gone well enough, but Yvonne is overwhelmed with the demands of new motherhood. Besides, she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and getting used to a new place is hard. Gerry’s mother and brother are there, but that doesn’t make things any better, really. For one thing, Gerry’s mother makes it clear that she knows much more about parenting than Yvonne does. So, Yvonne often feels judged and found wanting. Gerry’s brother tries to help, but he’s not exactly a rock of support, so to speak.
Yvonne learns of an online community called Netmammy, a support group for new mothers, and joins it. She soon becomes friends with the other women in the group, even though she’s never met them. From them she gets some solace, some good ideas, and a sense of belonging. Then, one of the members of the group seems to disappear. Yvonne is concerned, but she knows that it may not mean anything. Still, she’s worried enough to contact the police. Nothing much can be done, though, at least at first.
Then, DS Claire Boyle, who’s expecting a baby herself, is assigned to investigate when the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. She and her team first have to establish the woman’s identity. They also have to work out why and how she would have been left in that particular place. The dead woman’s profile is quite similar to that of Yvonne’s missing friend, so it could be the same person. If it is, what might that mean for the other members of Netmammy?
Little by little, Boyle and her team investigate the death, while Yvonne tries, in her own way, to find out what’s happened to her online friend. Gradually, each in a different way, the two find out the truth. And it turns out to be connected, but not in the way you might think, with Netmammy. It’s also connected to the past.
Part of the story is told (third person, past tense) from the point of view of Yvonne Mulhern. So, readers get a real sense of what it’s like to be a brand-new mother. As you might expect, Yvonne is exhausted, anxious to do the best she can for Róisín, and unsure she can do anything right. That strains many of her relationships. Still, Yvonne is neither foolish nor stupid. As she slowly learns the truth, she turns out to have her own resources. But she doesn’t always trust her own judgement, and her occasional doubting herself adds to the tension.
Other parts of the story are told from the point of view of Claire Boyle (also third person, past tense). She’s a smart, resourceful detective who’s trying to balance her impending new role in life with her dedication to the job. It’s not always easy, and she certainly makes her share of mistakes. But she’s determined to manage everything. There’s an interesting scene, for instance, where she’s on a visit to her doctor. During the visit, she gets a text that the jury has a returned a verdict in a case she’s been investigating. Her reaction gives an interesting perspective on what it’s like to try to fit it all in.
Boyle’s presence also adds an element of the police procedural to the novel. Readers follow along as she interviews witnesses, makes sense of evidence and so on. There are also some scenes at the police station, so readers get a sense of how the police do their jobs.
A very important element in the novel is the online world of Netmammy. Many of the chapters begin with Netmammy exchanges, and we see how important that community is to its members. They share all sorts of personal things with one another, and we see how close – and how vulnerable – it all makes them. Readers who are members of online fora will find that aspect of the novel to be quite familiar.
That forum also adds a layer of suspense – another important element – to the novel. On the one hand, the community is a source of solace and support to its members. On the other hand, people can be whoever they want to be when they’re online. There’s a sense of tension as Yvonne begins to wonder just who the members of Netmammy really are.
The suspense in this story is much more psychological than it is anything else. So, there isn’t a lot of emphasis on violence or brutality. Readers who dislike gore will appreciate that. In fact, many people consider this an example of the psychological thriller, although there are elements of the police procedural in it.
Like many thrillers, this one has an element of suspension of disbelief. Everyone’s different, of course, about how much of that suspension is too much. I can say without spoiling the story, though, that a few things and people are not what they seem.
Can Anybody Help Me? is a novel of psychological suspense that explores the relatively new and potentially very dangerous world of online communities. It features an overwhelmed young mother who’s trying to make sense of her new life, and begins to wonder whether anything makes sense. And it introduces a detective who’s determined to get to the truth. But what’s your view? Have you read Can Anybody Help Me? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 8 May/Tuesday, 9 May – Lonesome Point – Ian Vasquez
Monday, 15 May/Tuesday, 16 May – Sisters of Mercy – Caroline Overington
Monday, 22 May/Tuesday, 23 May – Fatal Enquiry – Will Thomas