What You Could Have Won by Rachel Genn review – a toxic relationship

Fiona Sturges
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Niall Carson/PA</span>
Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

We begin with a psychiatrist sitting in a cafe on a Greek island, pondering how he got there: the story involves drugs, a girlfriend as a psychological case study and a series of dramatic meltdowns. Rachel Genn’s second novel is a study of fame, addiction and co-dependency, dissecting a relationship in which both parties behave badly and neither can fathom a world beyond their own immediate needs.

Henry is a Brit in New York whose boss is threatening to steal his career-defining discovery, while Astrid is a singer for whom fame has arrived quickly and who struggles to keep a lid on her drug habit. While the parasitical Henry enables Astrid’s addictions in the hope of publishing a psychological profile on her, Astrid is erratic and needy, and given to lashing out at those around her. She believes Henry, who veers between tolerance and outright contempt, is the only one who understands.

Events are split between the couple’s holiday on a Greek campsite; Astrid’s solo trip to Paris, where she has been sent to a rehab clinic; and their Manhattan apartment. The chronology jumps back and forth, and pivotal events are revealed in increments. Such narrative loops are perhaps intended as a metaphor for Astrid’s befuddled state, but can prompt similar confusion in the reader.

Genn has cited Amy Winehouse as the inspiration for Astrid, and the spectre of the late singer is undoubtedly present in the calamitous gigs and Astrid’s predilection for dreadful men. Still, even at her most troubled, Winehouse’s extraordinary talent was never in doubt; we get scant evidence of Astrid’s brilliance or how she got to where she is, making investment in her neurosis a tall order.

What You Could Have Won is more convincing on the power games that play out between partners, often with barely a word exchanged, and the writing here can be bracingly caustic. Henry notes: “Her talents were so unallied to mine, the streams didn’t cross, I had nothing to fear from a woman like this.” Within this toxic relationship, Genn clearly wants to steer our sympathies towards Astrid and explore the ways men exert control over women; yet ultimately, you can’t help but feel exasperated by the pair of them.

What You Could Have Won is published by And Other Stories (£10). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.