Reproduced from Female First
Contemporary fiction author Paul Carroll’s new novel Don’t Ask is a gripping family drama that explores the unexpected consequences of taking a home DNA test, and which shockingly reaffirms the old adage, ‘Be careful what you wish for’.
By Gwyn Rees
For those who enjoy novels that draw on present-day social concerns, blended with compelling twists and a magnetic plotline that never relents, look no further than Don’t Ask.
This gripping family drama centres on a young woman named Elsa Watson, who is gifted a free home genealogy DNA test.
She at first declines to take the test, thinking that this sort of thing is best left to TV detective shows.
At the same time, however, Elsa has always been fixated on finding out the identity of the father she has never met. This desire to solve a personal mystery leads her to taking the DNA test in the hope of finding out more.
Elsa, who has bipolar disorder, finds a close match, not with her father but with another woman living nearby. Given her fragile mental state, Elsa becoming obsessed with meeting this woman, Toora, with the hope that this will ultimately lead back to her absent dad.
Both Elsa’s mum, Angie, and grandmother, Judy, have strong reservations about her pursuing this any further but, relentless, she continues. Unfortunately, this will lead her down a shocking path that she never anticipated, and one that causes both her own, and Toora’s, families to unravel.
Don’t Ask — the perfect name for this novel given the tragic drama that will unfold – is a whodunnit with a difference, in the respect that Elsa is not the only one to be faced with questions they wish had never been raised.
And, without giving too much away, Elsa isn’t the only one whose lineage comes under the clinical glare of the spotlight.
Elsa manages to track down her previously unknown close relative, but her overtures are rebuffed.
Like Pandora’s Box, however, once open the lid can’t be closed, with devastating consequences. Both families involved have skeletons in the closet that now come tumbling out, and before the dust settles there may be fresh ones to join them.
Interestingly, the novel covers three separate but interconnected timelines. The main timeline revolves around Elsa and her DNA quest in the present day.
The others, however, relate to her mother back in the Britpop days of the 1990s, and to her grandmother in the heady, permissive society of the glam rock ‘70s, when she was a young teenybopper religiously following fictional band, Flight.
Flight’s bass player, Chaz Crick, has his own storyline, both in the drug-fuelled, glitter-strewn excesses of the 1970s and the present day, where he is now a faded pop star earning a living as a painter and decorator.
While Chaz is central to the main plot, his background story, detailing his troubled relationship with toxic band mate, Andy, is engrossing in its own right.
Andy, who finds himself embroiled in the police’s real-world sexual abuse investigation, Operation Yewtree, is a despicable egomaniac, while Chaz carries remorse and regrets for past actions in equal measure.
For me, it is these scenes set in the seventies that really make the novel sing. They are vividly told, capturing perfectly the grimy underbelly of the pop star lifestyle – as Operation Yewtree exposed – as well as the sexist and predatory attitudes that just would not pass in these more enlightened times.
It’s important to add that while this time-hopping narrative structure may seem a little daunting at first, it proves highly effective in deepening the mystery before wrapping up the story effectively in a jaw-dropping, explosive fashion.
But it is not just the settings and plot that will capture readers’ attention. The central themes of family, parentage and identity, will resonate with readers, while the notion that, sometimes, it is better not to know something is highly significant given the ease with which people can now have their DNA analysed.
Indeed, the author was originally inspired to write the novel after a similar, though thankfully far less dramatic, experience involving his partner’s mother discovering her biological father following a genealogical DNA test.
This is independent author Paul Carroll’s fourth novel, following A Matter of Life and Death (Matador, 2012), Written Off (Matador, 2016), and Trouble Brewing (Matador, 2017).
Like his other books, Don’t Ask is full of dark humour and satirical takes on topical issues. In this way, the writing is similar to that of Ben Elton, Nick Hornby and Jonathan Coe, in that serious social concerns are wrapped up in highly entertaining packages.
Don’t Ask, though, is perhaps the author’s most mature and absorbing work to date.
Carroll’s use of language is also worthy of note for its creativity. For instance, there’s a great line where a character is described as being “as genuine as a Chanel handbag on a Marbella beach”. Another line I love compares a conversation to a “mountain stream meandering and switching down a gentle slope.” This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, however, as Carroll, now in his sixties, is a former public relations guru who ran his own hugely successful Manchester-based agency for many years.
Although Don’t Ask isn’t the only novel of recent times to use DNA kits as a main narrative tool (the recent Booker Prize winner, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo also involved them in her plot), Carroll’s emotive and charged take is unique and well worth your time.
One thing’s for sure, if you have ever considered taking a home DNA test yourself then, after reading this novel, you may well think twice before proceeding.