By Jay Slayton-Joslin
The roaring 20s! Gossip! Man-eating plans! Madeleine Swann’s latest novella, The Vine That Ate the Starlet, begins not with a whisper but with a shout. Anyone familiar with Swann’s work will instantly recognise this latest installment, falling straight into their warm comfy spot while chaos and oddities explode around them. For new readers, this may not be the world that you were expecting 100 years ago in New York, but you might just prefer it …
The Vine That Ate the Starlet tells the story of Dolly, a gossip columnist in the 20s in New York City. Far removed from the parasitic lens through which lots of paparazzi and gossip reporters are viewed in this current age, Dolly manages to move about in one of the upper tiers of society, moving from scoop to scoop. There are vines throughout the city, slowly encroaching on the earth so much so that they’re part of the landscape. Secrets and affairs are much less interesting to Dolly when a starlet turns up dead and she seems to be one of the few people who care and want to get to the bottom of the story.
Swann’s voice shines throughout the novella. She has a knack for dialogue that makes every character feel unique, and it perfectly encapsulates the time period that it’s set in. The reader is at the bar, drinking martinis and worrying about the vines with Dolly, and the novella never ceases to go from intrigue to intrigue. The story ends up sitting perfectly alongside Mulholland Drive and Under the Silver Lake as a portrayal of a tinsel town harbouring a darker, seedy, underbelly. Dolly makes for a wonderfully charming protagonist. Her encounters and voice sound like a 20s stereotype of joy, and watching her interview, plan and go through the events of the novel keeps it upbeat even when it’s at its darkest moments.
Despite the novel’s winding premise, the story follows a fairly linear path, or as linear as a bizarro Madeleine Swann book can be. We get to know the characters, care for them and suspect them, often at the same time. It’s absurd enough so that it’s all refreshing, but the theme of sleaze and predators sadly still echoes the entertainment industry as it is 100 years later. The only difference really is that we don’t have any killer vines, but with the way that this year is going we may not be too far from them popping up and doing their worst.
At times, this short book can be hard to follow. You may find yourself flicking back a few pages, as this story is rich in characters, events and disappearances. Though, in a bizarro detective story, you wouldn’t want it to be too easy. Plus, it just means that there’s all the more reason to pick this back up and go through its thorny pages once again. You’d want to anyway; the real scoop is simple: this book is really good.
Jay Slayton-Joslin is the author of Sequelland: A Story of Dreams and Screams (Clash Books, 2020) and Kicking Prose (KUBOA, 2014). Jay graduated with a BA in American Literature with Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Surrey. He lives in Leeds, England.