Monica suffers from chronic neuropathic pain. Every second of her life is spent in agony, and she is coping with it the best she can. However, there are whole years of her life which are a blur to her.
But when she finds a suicide note, written in her handwriting, she begins to question everything. She has no memory of writing it – so who did? And if someone tried to kill her once, what’s to say they won’t try again . . .
My reading (as you might expect going by my previous posts here) tends to lean more towards science fiction and fantasy than anything else. Generally crime novels and thrillers aren’t really my thing but it’s always good to make an exception to that rule every once in a while, and the most recent such exception is one I’m really glad I made.
Painkiller is an unusual thriller in many respects, the most notable being that its lead character, Monica, is no run-of-the-mill action heroine but an ordinary woman whose life has been severely limited by her crippling pain. Most of the story is told first-person from her perspective, which plays an essential part in getting us to fully appreciate her suffering and the extent to which this pain has so cruelly taken all Monica’s dreams and hopes away from her – but as the story goes along the first-person narrative also helps to add to the central mystery of the story. Painkiller makes great use of the unreliable narrator device, with Monica’s frequent blackouts and memory-altering medication robbing her of whole stretches of her life, so not only can the main character herself not necessarily trust those around her – even her closest friends and family – we the readers frequently find ourselves wondering just how much we can rely on what she’s telling us.
Fountain is perhaps best known (certainly to me at least) for his comedy writing on series like Dead Ringers or his Mervyn Stone novels and audios, plus several Doctor Who audio plays for Big Finish, and while there are frequent comedic touches in the dialogue the story itself is anything but a comedy. As well as being a very strong thriller it also touches on the darker aspects of human nature – jealousy and depression and suicide – in all their ugly forms, as well as examines how our society treats people who suffer from disabilities. It’s also frequently quite touching, with the relationship between Monica and her husband being a particular highlight. You might expect that such a central character might restrict the scale of the narrative, but in fact the story cleverly moves around often enough that the reader doesn’t become tied to one place for too long.
The most impressive aspect of the entire story is the way it’s structured; seemingly every chapter brought some new revelation or unexpected reveal, and right up until the very final scenes you never really know the full truth about anyone or anything. Not only is it a gripping read the first time through, I imagine it will be just as rewarding on further re-readings. As the story built to its conclusion and the truth gradually fell into place I realised that the clues had been there all along, carefully seeded throughout the story, and it would be fascinating to go back and experience it again knowing in advance what the big reveal(s) will be.
As well as being published in print and e-book forms an audiobook version is also available to download from Audible, and this was how I experienced the story. At this point I have to own up to the fact that it was the choice of narrator who made this audio an instant purchase for me; Nicola Bryant.
Best known for playing Peri, companion to the 5th and 6th Doctor Whos in the mid-1980s, Nicola is an actress that I have the greatest respect for. She’s a consistently strong performer, especially in her audio work; some of the Doctor Who audio stories she’s recorded for Big Finish such as The Reaping or Peri and the Piscon Paradox (also written by Fountain, and co-incidentally one of my favourite Big Finish releases of all time) have contained some of the most moving scenes in the entire history of the franchise. The word I most often use to describe her acting style is ‘affecting’ – she has the incredible gift of being able to truly make the listener feel the emotions and thoughts and pain of her character as if it were all absolutely real. That word may sound a bit pretentious, if it weren’t for the fact that I genuinely did find myself getting so sucked in by her performance that it really did feel as if I were listening to the deepest most personal thoughts and feelings of a real-life human being.
What do I mean by that? Well, I usually listen to audio dramas while commuting, and just occasionally my mind wanders onto other things while I’m staring out of the window – but while listening to Painkiller there were a couple of moments where I found myself eavesdropping as someone nearby shared their deepest rawest pain and heartbreak with a fellow passenger, and I suddenly felt overwhelmingly guilty for listening in on them. Except, no, I wasn’t; I was just listening to Nicola in the middle of a particularly emotional or painful scene and had stupidly let myself get distracted. That’s how good she is in this. For those few seconds she genuinely had me believing that her character (and more importantly her character’s grief and pain) was real. That happened while listening to both of the Who audios I mentioned above and it happened several times here too. I can’t think of any other actor who has done that to me so often and so convincingly, and for a story this personal and this emotionally gut-wrenching that skill is essential. This isn’t just a reading but a proper acting role, and there’s a huge difference between the two. Another actress might have delivered the best performance they were capable of, but still left you aware you were listening to a performance. Nicola is Monica.
The entire production is littered with sequences that illustrate beautifully why she was the perfect choice to read this but one that particularly sticks in my mind comes in the first half of the book, as Monica is struggling across the room just to look out of the window. In a TV or film adaptation that might have taken ten seconds tops but on audio it felt like it lasted for about five minutes and Nicola makes you feel every single agonising step that the character takes on her journey of just a few feet. She isn’t the only actor involved, as John Banks ably steps in to deliver the sections of the story that Monica isn’t present for, but as good as he is (and he is; an early scene where Monica’s husband confesses his thoughts on his wife and their situation to a priest is especially memorable) this is really Nicola’s show. The audiobook runs for nearly twelve hours and there isn’t a single scene where she gives anything less than the absolute best. In fact, if I were to point to a single production that shows her extraordinary strengths as a performer then Painkiller is it – and it’s up against a lot of competition.
On reaching the end of the story I had mixed feelings; not because of any problems with it (simply put, there are none – and I can get really nitpicky about the smallest things!) but just because I really didn’t want it to end! While the story has a very definite conclusion it still leaves you wanting more, especially when listening to such a beautifully-performed audio adaptation. I very nearly found myself listening to it over again straight away, which has to be a sign of a quality product! When I do eventually revisit this – and I will revisit this – it will be with a great sense of anticipation and excitement at the thought of rediscovering a beautifully-crafted piece of writing and reliving an utter gem of a central performance.
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