Baby review: murderous black humour drives debut

Annaleese Jochems
Scribe, $29.99

The cover of Annaleese Jochems' debut, Baby, is emblazoned with some bold endorsements. Eleanor Catton is on the front, announcing Baby as "Heavenly Creatures for a new generation". To the back, Catherine Chidgey compares her to the great Patricia Highsmith.

New Zealand author Annaleese Jochems’ debut novel is a dryly funny study of a young woman driven to shocking acts by what seems like boredom and lust alone.

Indeed Tom Ripley's sailing days come to mind when Jochems' central characters purchase the boat that gives this book its name. Obsessed with her personal trainer Anahera, and bored to tears with her young and lonely life, Cynthia is thrilled when Anahera arrives on her doorstep to announce she has left her husband. Cynthia takes this as the declaration of love she has been so desperate for and promptly empties her father's bank account to go on the run with her.

Using the bulk of their cash to buy Baby, the women begin what Cynthia hopes will be an idyllic life of love on the high seas. Where Ripley begins in Italy, embroiled in the world of the elite, Cynthia and Anahera moor themselves in Paihia, New Zealand, and mingle with locals such as Toby, who Cynthia first encounters as he spray-paints dicks all over the local playground.

Baby by Annaleese Jochems.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith endows her protagonist with a tragic backstory of neglect, imbuing his crimes with purpose; while Ripley is an amoral con artist, his motivations are somewhat established. In Baby, we get only a faint outline of who Cynthia was before she embarked on her new life, sketched out in scenes such as the one in which she describes crying into a mirror for days at a time, and attempting to catch her tears in a jar, resulting in her father purchasing Snot-head, her beloved dog, to calm her.

In the book's early chapters, she spends an evening and morning doing almost nothing – "When Cynthia got home, she did things on Facebook, slept, and now it's the next day, afternoon, and she's still in bed. Nothing has happened at all." She goes on to reflect about a "very attractive, very tedious boy called Randy" with whom she slept and feels unsatisfied by. We do not know who her father is, or where her mother is. We do not get a picture of her friends, outside of small asides and references to people who seem to exist solely on Facebook. But this is not a criticism – indeed, this is what gives Baby it's spark.

From page one, Baby is a dryly funny study of a young woman driven to shocking acts by what seems like boredom and lust alone, devoid of any semblance of a conscience. What is most compelling are not the crimes Cynthia commits – though they do drive the page-turning plot – but the difficulty in understanding the inner life of someone capable of performing them with such ease.

Amid the turmoil she has found herself in, she streams reality TV on her phone. In between plotting murder, she eats Coco Pops and watches porn. A hyper-exaggeration of a "selfish Millennial" driven by infatuation, Cynthia's shocking ambivalence and lack of self-awareness are the book's strongest elements, only stumbling when she occasionally veers into uncharacteristic self reflection, with a few heavy-handed lines that feel forced or over-written.

Baby will be divisive. While fans of Otessa Moshfegh will enjoy this debut, some may struggle to stick with a character to whom they cannot possibly relate. Do not come to Baby for a Lena Dunham character, a mildly amusing but realistically flawed vessel for commentary on spoiled young Millennials. Come to Baby for a full-blown psychopath who makes you laugh out loud despite your horror.

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