Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Up the Junction by Nell Dunn

This was an odd little book, recommended to me by my mum, during a rare moment discussing her youth. It was a library copy, as she doesn’t own the book any more, although she apparently vividly remembers reading it! She doesn’t remember how old she was when she read it, but I doubt very much it was on publication, as she’d have been thirteen in 1963.

Not really a novel, more a series of short sketches in the lives of three young women living in South London during the sixties; it was most interesting to me as an insight into how different women’s lives were in the early sixties to now. From reading this book, it seems women were just beginning to get some freedom, although this is a long way from any major feminist movement. They go out weekend evenings, yet they seem to have to fit into the already established male social scene, drinking brown ale, and waiting to be asked to parties and gatherings by various, sometimes random men. In fact, finding men, attracting men and sleeping with men seems to be a major focus of these women’s lives.

“We stand, the three of us, me, Sylvie and Rube, pressed up against the soon door, brown ales clutched in our hands. Rube, neck stiff so as not to shake her beehive, stares sultrily around the packed pub. Sylvie eyes the boy hunched over the mike and shifts her gaze down to her breasts snug in her new pink jumper. ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ he screams. Three blokes beckon us over to their table.”

Their personal lives can sometimes go very awry though, and details are not spared in this book. There is a horribly descriptive story of a back street abortion, and its dramatic conclusion. The language was plain and straightforward but, it was the imagery it brought about that was so powerful.

“Finally the ambulance arrived. They took Rube away, but they left behind the baby, which had now grown cold. Later Sylvie took him, wrapped in the Daily Mirror, and threw him down the toilet.”

However, as well as the personal lives of these young women, we see their day to day lives in many of the vignettes. They live their lives for the weekend, working hard at the sweet factory, but these tales include moments of life that are completely alien to me, writing in the 21st century. There are two stories involving someone called a Tally-man, which was a totally new concept to me. Goods sold door to door, at exorbitant prices and then paid for weekly. And now I’ve written that, it occurs to me that it sounds similar to catalogue shopping so perhaps not such a strange concept after all. But as described in this book, definitely a much more malicious and conniving system, described in detail, as a particularly unpleasant man details how he keeps his customers constantly in debt, and makes them believe they have a good deal. In fact, money, or more specifically a lack of it, permeate all the stories, with people only really earning enough to get by, and discovering ingenious ways to make it stretch, or have what they can’t really afford. The start of the credit nation perhaps?

“’Shall we go up the Pay-as-You-Wear and choose a couple of frocks?’
‘I thought you were skint?’
‘Pay as you wear, berk! You only have to put down bout fifteen bob deposit.’
‘And then you pay the rest off weekly’”

There are numerous events in this book that are just the women going about their daily lives and witnessing things happen, speaking to people about things that have happened, or just discussing events between themselves. Combine that with the fact that it is mainly dialogue, and colloquial dialogue at that, it was easy to feel the characters emotions and feeling about what was happening, and their emotional commitment to each other shone through their own language. .

I said at the start this was an odd book, and I spent a lot of time trying to pin down what I thought was odd about it. I finally came to the conclusion that it is the lack of any character definition. The three girls, Lily, Sylvie and Rube are indistinguishable from each other a lot of the time and it is often difficult to tell which is speaking, but somehow this doesn’t seem to be a problem. I think that is where the oddness came from. The characters are so indistinct, yet I still enjoyed the book, and I wanted to keep reading. It seems to have a universality (for the time), and it is precisely this blurring of the characters which gives the book its character. These women could be any working class women, their experiences will all be very similar, or they would at least have known other women who had been through similar experiences. At least, that it is the impression I came out of reading this book with.

I did enjoy this book. It was interesting to read, the lives of these women were so different and the options open to them so much more limited, yet it wasn’t that long ago. Obviously reading this now I can old this view, but what was running through my mind most when I read it was how it would have seemed to women reading this soon after publication. Would it have been scandalous, or exaggerated, or just plainly and simply describing their lives. I’d love to know.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Lying in Bed by Polly Samson

Lying in Bed is a collection of slightly odd, but moving short stories. Some of them made me laugh, some made me smile, and some almost made me cry. Concerned mainly with human emotions, the stories really do seem to get to the heart of an issue, and as all good short stories do, finish with a twist, that sometimes elicited a gasp from me. Most of them definitely had a twist, sometimes even worthy of Roald Dahl. I loved nearly all of these stories, and there are some that will stay with me for a long time.

The first story, Wasted Time, managed to induce giggles, smiles and sadness in me, all in the space of fourteen pages. It was my favourite story in the collection. It starts with a young girl asking her mother why she doesn’t have any brothers and sisters, and given an explanation, this is her considered response;

“Now this was all very well, thought the girl, but if they made love as often as her mother claimed, then why did she not have brothers and sisters. It was all highly suspicious, just like that ‘twinkle in your father’s eye’ stuff before.”

That little bit made me smile, but this story soon takes a much more ominous tone, as the true mental state of the mother is revealed, leading to the realisation of how lonely this child is, and the lengths she goes to to find ’friends’, and force her parents to provide siblings. It is in fact quite a horrific story, and it is impossible not to feel for the child as the realities of her life are revealed.

Inner feelings and emotions are a central theme of the stories in his collection. In fact the events themselves are always quite ordinary (except in that first story), but the author manages to shift all of the focus to the characters feelings, thoughts and emotions. The true extent of what is going on is never revealed at the start. At first the stories are just describing a scene, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, but always with a deep emotional impact for at least one of the characters by the conclusion of the story. It also seems to be distressed women in the majority of the stories. We watch a woman who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is inform her current partner of her pregnancy, then see her move from a state of fear to total love for her daughter. In another story we see that same woman’s friend dealing with the lack of children in her life, mainly because her husband doesn’t feel the need to bring children into the world.

This particular story really emphasises the theme running through many of the stories of the difference between outward impressions of relationships, and the inner reality. To all concerned, the couple have an ideal relationship, they really seem to enjoy spending time together and have a comfortable lifestyle including a nice home and lots of holidays. On one such holiday, their friend says to Clara

“You and Robert are the only couple I know who are actually quite nice to each other”

But personally Clara is feeling there is something missing from her life, and there always will be.

“It was the pain in her head more than menstrual cramps….the relief each month of her teenage years (thank you God!), that in Clara’s case extended into the first ten years of married life, were now replaced by a vacuous sorrow. A nebulous grief for someone who didn’t exist. A few more years and this monthly reminder would cease. She felt like she was becoming extinct”

It was this gradual peeling back of the layers in each story to reveal the truth of what was going on that I found so fascinating in these stories. That combines with the fact that all the characters were so ordinary, and so well drawn that they were easily identifiable with. They could live up the road, or round the corner from you. They were brilliant, shocking and emotionally raw. And definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Rupture by Simon Lelic

Rupture is such an apt title for this book. It’s about the huge rupture caused when a supposedly mild mannered history teacher walks into his school assembly armed with a gun and shoots three pupils, a colleague and then himself. This isn’t giving anything away as this is all revealed within the first chapter; the rest of the book is concerned with the reasons why Samuel Szajkowski did this, what drove him to such a radical act.

In the sense that there is a lead detective assigned to the case, this would appear to be a straightforward police procedural type story. But since there is no mystery as to who committed the crime, there is no apparent case to solve. The whole school witnessed the shooting, and it is apparent fairly early on that Louisa May, the investigator, is expected to wrap up the case fairly swiftly, leaving the press and public to declare what a horrific tragedy it was, and vilify the perpetrator of the crime. I don’t think it gives too much away to say that she doesn’t see it that way, and risks her career to pursue the idea that there may be other factors to consider when apportioning blame for the crime, and unearths a lot of other issues in the process. The book itself doesn’t actually present a definite answer, although I think there was a slight bias towards one side of the argument than the other, but does raise a number of issues worthy of thought. However, the brilliance of this book is in the telling, specifically in the way the events preceding the tragedy are revealed.

Some of the chapters are straight linear narratives of what Louisa is doing, thinking and the way the ideas are developing in her mind. But her thought processes are guided by the interviews she conducted with key witnesses in the school, and these transcripts are provided in full which makes for a very interesting reading experience. As readers, we almost come to the same conclusions as Louisa, at the same time, making this a very interactive read. It is also interesting to see the different character’s attitudes to the incident, and in what appear to be quite in-depth investigations, see their reactions to the slightly odd-ball, and mild mannered history teacher from the moment he joined the school. For example, it is clear from her discussion with the school headmaster that he is not an altogether pleasant man;

“He asks for a glass of water. I have not offered but he asks for one anyway. I have Janet bring one in and he thanks her, rather obsequiously. He takes a swig and then seems unsure of what to do with the glass He makes a motion towards my desk but then changes his mind. In the end he just clutches it in his lap. I can tell he regrets asking for it but I do not offer to take it from him. I do not see why I should have to.”

In fact, although this is only a short book, with a reasonably large array of characters, the author does a fantastic job of giving them all their own personalities and traits even though we only hear from each of them once, with casual references to them in other peoples conversations. Curiously, Samuel is the most discussed person in the book, yet he seems to be the person we know least about.

With the main theme of the book being whether anyone else can be culpable when such a horrific tragedy occurs, it is amazing how many other issues the author manages to pack into just over three hundred pages. Through the development of the story, it is clear that bullying is a major issue, both staff bullying staff, pupils bullying pupils, and even pupils bullying staff. And Louisa herself appears to be the victim of workplace bullying by her colleagues (mainly male). How much bullying should be tolerated in a community environment, and exactly when somebody should step in is an issue prominent throughout the book. I think at the end of the book, we do have a little more insight into why Samuel did what he did, although I still find it difficult to understand. I did appreciate the way this book gives a whole background to such a tragic event, and queries the natural reaction to just vilify the perpetrator, whilst all the time questioning the institutions that assist in this, both as organisations and the individual people concerned. There some very unpleasant authority figures in this book, and their actions are very hard to justify.

I think it’s fairly obvious by now that I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the structure more than anything else, and I think it is a really interesting way to tell a story. At times events or incidents were mentioned which as readers we had no knowledge about, and although they were explained fairly soon, the slight tension created whilst waiting for an explanation was what kept me reading. I think a quote that comes very early in the book sums it up quite nicely;

“History is what it is. It can’t predict the future, but it can hep us understand who we are, where we’re from. History is all about context, he says, and without context, all meaning is lost.”