Just as we thought we’d read every iteration of domestic noir, along comes the first example of “snowflake noir”. Precious You, a twisty commercial thriller by former journalist Helen Monks Takhar depicts the savage rivalry between two women at work: a successful middle-aged boss and her ambitious millennial intern. The manuscript was fought over by five literary agents before being sold in a pre-emptive two-book deal to HarperCollins for a “life-changing, significant six-figure sum”, with TV rights optioned. It looks set to be one of this summer’s biggest beach reads.
In true noir style, it’s a preposterous story, but what makes it interesting is how Monks Takhar, 44, incorporates several themes close to her heart, from the humiliation of becoming invisible at 40, to why women love to bitch each other up so much, to the more urgent pressures facing millennials today.
She was desperate to write about what she calls “the hate narrative bubbling up against young people for lacking the resilience and joie de vivre of preceding generations.” They haven’t had a free university education, can’t afford to get on the property ladder, and many find it almost impossible to get a decent job, even without the pandemic, she says, accusing “the mainstream media” of unkindly and unfairly painting millennials as “entitled, water-bottle-clutching, avocado-munching, precious snowflakes”. It comes from a place of fear, she thinks. “Millennials make us feel old and uncool. They call out the things we put up with, like sexism in the workplace. And if they’re sober, they make us ask difficult questions about that side of our lives too.”
As it turns out, Monks Takhar’s 41-year-old fictional protagonist is right to be scared of her potent millennial adversary. Things turn very nasty as the older woman, who at first appears to have an enviable job, a steady partner and a lovely home, is soon shown up for her unacceptable behaviour, from making casual racist comments and arriving at work drunk, to seducing younger male colleagues.
Monks Takhar — who lives in Stoke Newington with husband Danny Takhar, a former Sky executive, and their two young daughters — paints an accurate if extreme portrait of what journalism was like back in the Nineties, when she cut her teeth as a cub reporter on a financial newspaper. “We were able to party and do what the hell we liked. We were taken out by older blokes for long lunches, and the power we had walking into a room felt amazing.”
It’s not just the gulf between Gen X-ers and millennials that fascinates her. She is also deeply troubled by the apparent paradox that women are often vicious rather than collaborative, especially in the workplace. “Some women extract a particular dark pleasure from dishing it out to other women and we’re really good at having a bitch and moan. There are few things more bonding than finding a female enemy you can unite against, by taking apart their every move and gesture. It’s fun!” she exclaims, adding that she had a lot of fun writing her characters, who, it has to be said, are both extremely unlikeable. “They could have ruled that place, but women are too good at making targets of the wrong people.”
The right targets, she believes, are “the patriarchal systems that create toxic environments where women feel they need to compete with each other”. Really? “The readiness of some women to default to sabotage over supporting other women, means they’re doing patriarchy’s work for it. Too many workplaces are unfair to women, with gender pay gaps and women seen as disposable, particularly as they age, which can create competitive environments that encourage our worst tendencies to flourish.”
She worries that Precious You will be seen as anti-feminist, for “showing that we don’t always default to empathy with women who aren’t like us”, although you only have to observe adolescent girls in the playground, I suggest, to know that kind of behaviour begins much earlier.
She is also painfully unresolved about her own ageing. She hated being cat-called by men when she was younger, but hated it even more when it stopped. “I loved not being cat-called, but I was more shocked at how it left me facing my own invisibility and the fact my youth had ended.” How come? “It’s completely perverse on every level, but it was horrifying to realise the harassment I’d been so angry about for so long, had somehow wrapped itself up in my self-worth.” She asks me to mention ourstreetsnow.org, the online campaign that aims to make sexual harassment illegal and help change the way women see themselves.
In a moment of clarity, she suddenly says “I channelled all those contradictions. See me, don’t see me, but please still see me. Don’t judge me on what my body and face are doing, but are my face and body still okay? Do I still register? I’m not young any more and the doors that may have been open are closed now,” she pauses. “Then I felt if I can do something with this, I might be able to turn it around.” And so she has — into a very lucrative book deal.
Precious You is out on July 23 (HQ, £12.99), buy it here.