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In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the freedoms and oppressions of the 1970s (Emma Cline’s Girls was loosely based on the Manson family cult, while that of Elizabeth Wetmore valentine deployed in the wake of male violence in 1970s Texas), and Welsh writer Sally J Morgan’s debut novel also grapples with how this age of apparent progression was simultaneously a perilous time to be a woman.

Morgan’s deep dive into the decade, recently awarded the Portico Prize (given to writing “which best evokes the spirit of the North of England”), reflects his own close call with two of the serial killers most notorious in the UK. At 21, while hitchhiking in Yorkshire, Fred and Rosemary West offered to pick her up. Morgan’s penchant for nabbing a free ride is shared by its danger-chasing protagonist Jude Totton, nicknamed Toto, for whom “the border between life and death shines”.

The novel begins as this thrill seeker travels with two friends, Nel and Jo, art school graduates, to the “toughest part of Leeds”, Chapeltown, “full of gangs attacking immigrants who cannot afford to live elsewhere”. ”. Although the neighborhood initially seems hostile—curses are scrawled on the front door—Toto quickly befriends a local sex worker, Janice, and stumbles upon an anarchist alternative school where runaways are sometimes hidden under the floor.

Toto’s motley hangouts are clearly captured, from the highway (“a river of metal, a flow of shiny paint”), to his favorite pub (“a cramped collection of dusty rooms, full of art students, anarchists, Irish republicans, gays and prostitutes”), while northern dialects are lovingly integrated into the dialogue. Although Morgan’s writing is bold, it is not subtle, with the emotions of his often glaring characters on their sleeves: “The intensity of being alive stuns me,” Toto recounts. “It’s so incomprehensible. So incredibly beautiful.”

A string of ambient headlines denoting attacks or disappearances of women gradually crescendos, but Toto remains intransigent in his daredevil. She was almost assaulted twice, by ex-soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday, then by an acquaintance, from which she emerges like a “drunken Boadicea, raising her arms in triumph after a night burning Rome”. Toto’s encounter with the Wests is relatively fleeting, but the fear that they are hiding in their discreet pale gray car persists, finally ending Toto’s recklessness.

Not All Morgan Actors Are Spared: Roommate Nel’s story captures the insidious nature of male violence (about his relationship with boyfriend Simon, she thinks “weakness and cruelty are so close in some people”), while the romance has an uneasy relationship with class and voyeurism, with Chapeltown’s poorer residents (the real victims of the book) slightly fetishized by Toto but given little narrative breathing space. Toto among the murderers is both propelled and held back by his earnestness, an honesty that manifests in his twists and turns through the “crumpled landscape” of northern England, his flirtations with death, and the strange love story that unfolds. blossoms little by little between its two protagonists.

Toto among the murderers by Sally J Morgan is published John Murray Press (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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