Everything is Free. Adele Ward. Ward Wood Publishing. 2011. £9.99.

Every thing is free is a contemporary condition of England novel.  It is centred around a shopping mall where a cast of lost souls spend a good proportion of their lives.  Ward judiciously sets the story just before Christmas thereby reinforcing the societal obsession with the material over the spiritual.

The central character Mel becomes an unwitting catalyst for much of the action in the novel, including the thriller element, which is manifested in a series of bomb scares that disrupt the workings of the centre.  She is homeless and decides to secretly sleep in the bedding section of ‘Bennings’ a department store.  As we glean her back story Ward gives us a chilling view of the life of a girl forced to sleep rough.  However what comes across is Mel’s strong survival instinct as she blags a job in the store selling perfume.

It is whilst delivering fliers for a hairdresser, that she finds an empty house whose owners have gone away for the holiday season, and resolves to take up residence for Christmas when the mall will be closed.  Here I feel the novel becomes a little far-fetched.  A neighbour watching the house for friends is conned by her explanations of being the new au pair.  Moreover, this recently widowed man and his young daughter are bewitched by Mel to the extent that they spend Christmas day together.

Of course what beguiles the pair and indeed a number of people in the novel is Mel’s exceptional beauty.  It is her looks that allow her to get away with much but as Ward shows such beauty can also have a catastrophic effect on other people.

For me the saddest ’lost soul‘ is Lynne, an overweight, dowdy single mum recently abandoned by her partner.  Lynne’s life is an unequal battle.  Her ground floor flat is constantly under threat from rats which seem to be a metaphor for all the troubles that assail her.  The shopping mall becomes the stage for her deteriorating mental health as she stalks Mel who she believes is having an affair with her ex, a security guard at the centre.  The study of the woman’s self degradation  is extremely affecting and would I think resonate with many woman as she watches the beautiful young girl whilst devouring hot chocolate and cake with a mixture of pleasure and self loathing.

As well as the lost souls, Ward uses various characters to comment upon sex and relationships particularly amongst the young.  Malls are of course usual haunts for groups of youths.  In the novel they gather around the ‘Cookie island’.  At first I found the demotic language of these young characters slightly studied but after a while it began to ring true largely due to their subject matter which revolved solely around relationships.  What shocks is the girls’ casual disregard for their bodies, allowing themselves to be gang raped or beaten yet still needing to be with the men.  Such men are represented by a father and son hired as security guards for the season who are described as Dickensian grotesques.  Here again although at first their idiom and opinions seemed extreme, after a while they became chilling authentic in their racist and misogynistic attitudes.

Since much of the action revolves around the security centre at the mall and a computer store, Ward bombards the reader with references to all types of social media.  Several characters seek refuge from unsatisfactory lives in the on line fantasy game Second Life. Others watch porn or try on line dating.  The youths constantly converse on mobile phones, a party or tourists photograph an attempted suicide and the CCTV watches everything.  This reinforces the idea of the mall as a place of escape where the harsh realities of the outside may be put aside temporality.  Yet at the same time it suggests that society renders itself vulnerable by such distractions.

After a somewhat dystopic vision of loneliness and sexual violence I found the ending a little too neat and tidy smacking of Shakespearian tragicomedies where everyone pairs off in the end.  Nevertheless the novel succeeds in finding a unique way of looking at modern life by showing the underbelly of a location that is so familiar to us.

Fiona Sinclair. © 2012