Hey, Zoey by Sarah Crossan review – ‘the perfect girlfriend’

<span> Zoey’s blankly affable gaze makes her strangely endearing.</span><span>Photograph: JJZ/Alamy</span>
Zoey’s blankly affable gaze makes her strangely endearing.Photograph: JJZ/Alamy

Intelligent sex robots may seem like a dream of the future, but that dream is a couple of centuries old. ETA Hoffmann’s 1816 story The Sandman imagines a young man falling for a lovely but “stiff and soulless” girl who turns out to be a clockwork creation. More recently, Alan Ayckbourn and first-time novelist Sierra Greer have used the artificial girlfriend to shed light on human emotions.

Sarah Crossan is an Irish author whose eight novels for teens and young adults have racked up an impressive slate of prize nominations. This is her second work for adults, after Here Is the Beehive, a verse novel about adultery. You could say this new book is also about a love triangle, but with a twist: the other woman is an AI-enabled doll, fully customisable – not just in the number of her freckles and dimensions of her orifices, but in every aspect of her personality. Dolores finds her in the garage, tucked into a bag, and confronts David, her husband, who simply says: “Her name is Zoey.”

At first Dolores hates Zoey, seeing her as an interloper. But the doll’s blankly affable gaze and habit of agreeing make her tolerable, even endearing. Dolores begins to slot Zoey into various roles, filling the gaps in her life: friend, confidante, drinks-holder, punching bag and finally a telltale mirror; wife and doll share a quality of plastic passivity, of tolerance, of silence. In Zoey’s bland replies to any and all questions, we hear echoes of Dolores’s efforts to keep the secret she has so painfully repressed all these years.

In a way, Crossan has painted herself into a corner here. In Dolores she has created a character with trauma who barely acknowledges that trauma even to herself. We might expect such a character to expose their pain, deal with it and emerge a wiser and happier person. But if an author rejects this “healing journey” trope as being too cliched, she is left with limited options. Either the character’s repressed pain can erupt in some other way – Dolores’s friend Leonard imagines her “taking a machete to a crowd of strangers in the Waitrose dairy aisle”, which would have resulted in a different kind of novel altogether – or she carries on miserably with her life.

Crossan’s first-person narration is written in flat, affectless prose, with short sentences that give little away

Novels that take the latter option can suffer from a sort of paralysis. In Hey, Zoey, we’re given too much dialogue of the type where one person asks: “What’s wrong, my sweet?” and the other replies: “Nothing.” This can either be a poignant allusion to all the things left unsaid in a relationship or a bit boring.

Crossan’s style reflects the content. Dolores’s first-person narration is written in flat, affectless prose, with short sentences that give little away. There are frequent time jumps that take us back through her life – the death of her childhood dog, the arrival of her stepfather and stepbrother, the honeymoon with David – filling out the jigsaw of this damaged woman one fragment at a time. These too are short, sometimes three to a page. The effect is to give you a bird’s-eye view; again, Crossan is undercutting the “journey” plot trope by circling round the secret at the plot’s core, tentatively approaching it from different angles. The astute reader may well guess this secret within the first 50 pages, but piecing together the events that formed Dolores’s ultra-avoidant character is still fairly enjoyable.

The most memorable passages are those that deal with Zoey herself. Crossan has a lot of fun with her cute little robotic ways. Zoey asks Dolores to name her favourite drink: “I like poison,” Dolores says. “Really? I like poison too,” the doll replies. She is hairless, tireless, turn-off-able – the perfect girlfriend. I found myself hoping her AI brain would rebel, causing her to take a machete to a crowd of strangers in the Waitrose dairy aisle, or even say: “No thanks, I don’t feel like doing that today.” Are we meant to feel for Zoey, as we do for the conscientious android carer in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun? We certainly feel for the wife who can never live up to this pliable ideal – or, worse, sees herself mirrored in the doll’s blank gaze.

Hey, Zoey by Sarah Crossan is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.