Ali Millar

(White Rabbit, £18.99)

As first meetings go, it’s definitely one of the more horrifying. One rainy Wednesday, Bethany appears at Anna’s garden gate just as Anna is delivering a series of violent kicks to her own dog, which has passed out in a bed of lavender.

Their subsequent dash to the vet marks the beginning of a weird relationship between two very messed-up people.

Author Ali Miller, raised in the Scottish Borders but now living in London, noticed parallels between her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness and the status enjoyed by social media influencers, and has woven around her observations a novel which is deeply strange and unsettling, but also highly distinctive and endlessly fascinating.

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Ava Anna Ada is set in the near-future, during a roasting hot summer that feels like a foretaste of an inevitable climate crisis. On the strip of land known as the Spit, hordes of gawkers have gathered, awaiting a predicted tsunami.

Bethany lives on the Spit with her mother, both confined there by freedom of movement restrictions.

Rich and poor are divided by the rating on their Value Meters, which is determined by a variety of factors including carbon use, with the threat of deportation hanging over those who let it fall too low.

Hungry for what life has to offer, but unable to leave the Spit until she gets an exemption certificate, Bethany dreams of getting away, and has been secretly selling sex to the men of the town, building up a decent stack of cash to fund her escape.

Anna has only recently moved into the area, the change of scene, which was the choice of her nature-loving husband, doing nothing to ease the pain of losing her daughter, Ada. She’s an influencer, showing off her perfect home and lifestyle on social media, while in real life her relationship with her husband is on the rocks and she is neglecting her son, Adam (himself a bit of an odd kid, who collects insect cocoons).

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A combination of grief, drink, pills and her reliance on “likes” for affirmation has left her distant and careless. Every so often, she meets with men who beat her so she can remember what it’s like to feel something.

Bethany has been stalking Anna on social media since she moved into the area, fascinated by this new arrival who thinks she can hold her life together by filling her spotless house with all the right accessories.

Realising that she vaguely resembles Anna’s dead daughter, she decides to play on it, renaming herself Ava and smuggling herself into Anna’s life.

Over the next week, identities are blurred and boundaries are crossed. The pair feed off their obsession with each other in a fever dream of a relationship built on lies and fuelled by pills.

They indulge their needs and whims without any thought of the damage they’re causing. It can only lead to disaster, and culminates in acts of cruelty that show how completely they’ve lost their moorings.

The Herald: Ali MillarAli Millar (Image: free)

Millar has infused this novel with a dark, hot, sticky intensity which is disturbing but so gripping that, like the tsunami-watchers on the beach, you can’t bring yourself to look away for a minute.

The content (animal cruelty, child abuse, self-harm, BDSM and references to the anorexic death of a child) is not for the faint-hearted, and the imagery spread throughout the book (such as peeling scabs and drawers full of insect cocoons) continually unsettles. It’s also a unique and fiercely original debut novel, starting 2024 off with a bang that will echo for a long time to come.