I’m more of a novella than a chunkster reader but now and again one comes along that sounds irresistible. Despite the inevitable comparisons with Succession, which I didn’t get on with at all, Sarah May’s twenty-first century take on William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, looked as though it would fit that bill with its story of a young woman who works her way up the tabloid press ladder, determined to get to the top whatever the cost to herself and others.
There are almost as many dark spots on him as there are on me. Dark spots that both of us have gone to great lengths to hide, in order to make ourselves tarnish-free. This is what we have on each other.
Aged eighteen, Becky Sharp reinvents herself, leaving the small Kent town where she was raised by a mother given to drink and ill-advised relationships. She’s registered with an agency as a nanny, her CV more a work of fiction than fact, and lands a job with the Crawleys, owners of a mega media corporation, making friends with Rosa, Pit Crawley’s trophy wife. Becky soaks up Rosa’s drunken confidences, storing them away for future use. Within a couple of years, she’s found her way into a job at the Mercury and is surprised to be reacquainted with George who has also moulded himself into what’s required to escape his Haversham roots. Becky becomes Rebecca, cultivating contacts in the guise of friendships, keeping a mental dossier on the inhabitants of this new glittering world until an army officer, long suspected of an affair with the Princess of Wales, decides to go public. Still in her early twenties, Becky has the scoop which sets her on the path to the Mercury’s editorship and marriage into the Crawley family. When a young girl goes missing, Becky does everything she can to win the confidence of her parents, launching a campaign that will see the Mercury’s circulation soar but whose execution will land her in court.
Sticking to the rules, I’d discovered, helped me to remain virtually invisible, and while invisible I saw things and heard things that others didn’t
This is such a clever, entertaining reworking of Vanity Fair, a novel May clearly loves. Her Becky follows a similar trajectory to Thackeray’s, although she tells us her own story making it all the more immediate. Her backstory is threaded through the adult Becky’s career, small details drip fed to us helping to explain how she has come to be so ruthlessly ambitious. May draws on decades of tabloid bad behaviour – the revelation of private lives to titillate readers, the phone hacking scandal that saw a real life Rebekah in court, the fostering of close connections between newspaper editors and politicians. It’s all deftly done, the grubbiness of tabloid journalism laid bare. Becky is a complex character, so fiercely ambitious that human decency seems to have been eradicated yet she convinces herself that she has the best interests of the parents of missing Ella at heart, manipulating an intimacy between herself and her mother. Such is May’s skill, that despite Becky’s appalling behaviour, I still felt some sympathy for her. A perfect read for long winter evenings.
Picador Books: London 9781529066913 432 pages Hardback