Jen Beagin
Oneworld, £12.99

Introduced in Beagin’s debut, Pretend I’m Dead, her creation Mona gets a second outing in this darkly comic sequel.

She’s a 26-year-old cleaner in Taos, New Mexico, who can’t resist pushing the boundaries of her job. That can mean covertly taking photographs of herself in her clients’ homes while wearing their clothes, agreeing to pose nude for them or having torrid affairs with their husbands. The word “inappropriate” doesn’t appear to be in her vocabulary.

We know quite a lot about what goes on inside Mona’s head thanks to her conversations with her imaginary friend, Terry Gross (a real-life NPR broadcaster in Philadelphia), who helps her keep her head straight. Mona is drawn to darkness and the kind of intimacy that comes with danger and transgression, and can tell when clients are cut from the same cloth: “She was comfortable with creepy … and they knew it.”

Having self-harmed, she can recognise the scars, and she sees them on Philip, a client’s husband who enjoys shamanic male-bonding retreats in the desert which culminate with being hung on trees from hooks. He’s pompous and nauseatingly self-confident, but Mona is smitten by his animal energy, rechristening him “Dark” and embarking on a passionate affair that satisfies her on a deeply physical, almost elemental level.

Later, showing a knack for zeroing in on couples with tangled relationships, she starts cleaning for arty Hungarians Lena and Paul, who have a relaxed attitude to boundaries too and, after catching Mona photographing herself with their possessions, persuade her to model nude for Paul, Lena becoming a much-needed confidante and provider of pills to get her through the sessions.

Eventually, Mona goes back to visit her mother Clare and her partner in LA, Beagin stripping back the layers to see if her childhood and formative relationships might show her a way to turn her life around. With an indifferent mother and a creepy grandfather looming over her childhood, the 13-year-old Mona was caught breaking into people’s homes and sent away to a foster mother in Massachusetts, staying for nine years, some of that time in a mental hospital. “Perhaps her preoccupation with home led her to do terrible things,” she wonders.

But, for all that it seems chaotic, there is an underlying, unconscious method in Mona’s life, seen in her sequences of photographs, which portray her progressing from anaemic to empowered.

Vacuum in the Dark is a messed-up book about messed-up people, and is correspondingly visceral and explicit, Mona’s tempestuous and transgressive desires inextricably linked with her physicality. Throughout, Beagin is brutally and fearlessly funny. Her humour taps into, and even draws its strength from, uncomfortable areas, which could lead to charges that she’s trading on shock value, were she not clearly one step ahead of such criticisms. Bravely, after setting her up as a troubled, damaged person needing healed, Beagin sidesteps the conventions of character development, allowing Mona to be who she is and to find a direction on her own terms.