by Kirsty Allison

reviewed by Csilla Toldy

If you’re wondering about the meaning behind the title of Kirsty Allison’s novel, let me help you: psychomachia is Greek for the war between body and soul. True to its title, this work of fiction can take some effort to read. For starters, there are the footnotes—sixty-three, to be exact—most of which tell the stories of dead celebrities, many of them members of the 27 Club. Allison, editor of the UK literary and arts quarterly Ambit, offers not only a carnival of the senses with Psychomachia, but also makes a eulogy to the gone-too-soon rebel heroes of pop culture. (The book opens with an allusion to Blondie’s famed aphorism, “Die young, stay pretty.”)

The heroine of the novel is twenty-two-year-old Scarlet Flagg, whose father is a roadie and whose mother is a refugee from Cambodia. Scarlet tells her story from prison. Soft but edgy, Scarlet’s flowery slang cuts into your heart in a weird, astral way:

This story, if it can entertain you, will mean something. We can glide through London, New York, Ibiza, when all the sanitised people are doing sanitised things, and we will inspire, disguising our naked bodies in costumes of invention.  We are artists. We are covered in drag as soon as we are vomited from the womb, we wear the grain of our experience. I know I will never feel young again. The skin like parchment, it cannot stay pristine in a dirty world of death drugs and bruises of others; reverberating, pustulating, infecting our conscious spirits.

Scarlet’s life bears the scars of her mistreatment at the hands of male abusers. Allison has said Psychomachia was written before the #MeToo movement, but it describes with great exactitude and empathy that feeling of worthlessness that comes about when women are treated as commodities—not only in film, but also in fashion and in popular culture. It’s the story of a girl who ends up confessing to a murder she did not commit. Scarlet, a backstage groupie, is raped by Irish rock star Malachi Wright at the age of thirteen. After establishing a career in fashion writing by her own wits and having multiple “safe” affairs with women, she falls in love with a young musician, Iggy, who takes her back into the circle of Malachi, now Iggy’s band manager. Although Malachi, chillingly, does not recognize her after ten years, Scarlet once more falls prey to Malachi and his entourage, ultimately finding herself literally cast away on the roadside.

Despite her eventual imprisonment, Scarlet sneaks into the reader’s heart, charming us with her language. She lingers on, like the flashbacks she has, even after her perpetrator has died. Her sufferings stay with us, too. This is, after all, a book about psychomachia—the conflict between body and soul. The body will replay the trauma it has suffered, and the final question, delivered through the horrible final twist of the story, is whether the soul will ever manage to escape.

Allison brings to bear a rich store of firsthand experience to Pyschomachia, filling it with vivid details about popular music and culture. A musician who has played for the band Vagrant Lovers, Allison, like her heroine, used to be a BBC moderator as a teenager before becoming a fashion writer. She knows the fairyland glamour of the fashion world, as well as the depths of addiction—a major feature of Psychomachia. It’s exactly this that makes you wonder whether Malachi, who uses his power to corrupt his mentees and the people he manages, is based on a real-life figure. (“I feel the band beginning to emulate him,” Scarlet reports. “He’s sticky like fly paper.”)

Allison’s poetic slang is imbued with a musicality that’s hard-hitting and well-suited for portraying Scarlet’s emotional turmoil. In her playfully experimental style, the names of cultural icons become adjectives and verbs:

“I’m more wrecked than the Titanic,” I admit to Bobby. “More zapped than the Zapatistas.”
“You look like you’ll be more zapped than Mia Zapata: you’re doing a good advert for staying clean,” he replies.

Then comes the footnote:

Mia Zapata was lead singer of Seattle grunge band, The Gits. She was murdered walking home late at night on July 7th, 1993 by a fisherman with a history of brutality towards women. Joan Jett and Kathleen Hanna wrote a song in her memory called Go Home. She was 27.

The nonfictional element of the footnotes and references tells another story of the twentieth century, reminding readers of its losses, its decadence, and its melancholy. Even so, this metafictional device adds reality to the magic of this not-so-happy fairytale.

Published on December 28, 2021