From the first magnificently shocking line of this long-titled novel, I was instantly gripped by the powerful and original voice of the narrator. Like David Copperfield the book starts with the narrator Janie’s birth and the story continues on following her till the brink of adulthood. Janie Ryan is raised by her fascinating strong-willed filthy-mouthed mother who has returned to her mother’s house in Scotland after becoming pregnant after a short spate of living in London. The pair move all over the UK through a variety of social housing and exist on the perilous knife-edge between Monday benefit cheques and total poverty. Along the way Janie witnesses horrific scenes of abuse against her mother from a drug dealer she takes up with named Tony Hogan. Far from being something out of the ordinary amongst Janie and her friends it’s simply acknowledged “That’s what das do.” Although her mother finally escapes abusive Tony he eventually turns up again disrupting the modest peace and comfort Janie and her mother have been able to find on their own: “Tony smothered the life that me and Ma had built, a furry mould growing over a sweating slab of cheese.” With Janie’s mother dealing with problems of abusive men, poverty, substance abuse and depression she is forced into taking on a more adult role to protect their fragile existence: “We were a glass family, she was a glass ma and I needed to wrap us up, handle her gently.” Through a lot of strife and hardship Janie gradually grows to become as fiercely independently-minded as her mother: “Ryan Women, with filthy tempers, filthy mouths and big bruised muscles for hearts.” While dealing with a lot of difficult and painful subject matter, Hudson is able to maintain a lot of hilarity and genuine warmth in the story through her incredible array of characters and an inventive use of language.
One of the great things this book does is expose the inherent sexism of society especially when discussing pregnancy amongst people from poor backgrounds: “People thought it was an epidemic or something to do with the tides, ‘so many careless girls in one year’. Not one word about the careless lads.” Equally it exposes a troubling attitude towards women who drink, dress provocatively and stay out late at night: “they’d say it again, ‘You see? Hammered. Asking for it.’” Not only is physical and sexual violence overlooked by those around them, it’s passively condoned as something normal and that women of a certain “type” seek out. While the world may gasp in shock when someone of the upper classes like Nigella Lawson is shown with a man’s hand gripped around her neck, they’d be more likely to roll their eyes or turn away in embarrassment and fear when seeing an intoxicated woman on benefits being similarly abused by a man. This is a sick fact of inequality based on social and economic status. Hudson also shows how difficult it is to work towards a better life once you’ve been pigeonholed as coming from a certain class. In one scene at school Janie meets with a jobs advisor who rebuffs her aspirations to study law with the claim that his “job is managing expectations” rather than helping her to realize these dreams.
A great joy of reading this novel is the powerful way Hudson uses language to evoke her characters through dialogue in a way that makes them instantly familiar and understandable. The voice of the narrator also beautifully evokes the sense of time and place making it feel immediate and real. This is particularly effective in the way she frequently references the smells around her as in one scene in a cramped car travelling across the UK: “The car stank, layer upon later of reek, my feet stewing in my Docs (hormones Ma said), Doug’s ‘silent but violents’, though he delicately lifted one arse cheek when he let one off so it was hardly a secret, onions, lard and our unbrushed teeth thick with stale sugar.” This instantly takes the reader there and grounds them in Janie’s reality. I admire how Kerry Hudson has been able to cast light upon a part of British society not often seen or discussed. It’s a tremendously accomplished work of fiction.
This is the second book I’ve read which is nominated for this year’s Polari First Book Prize. It’s totally different from The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones. I don’t think there is a useful way to compare them and I don’t think I could choose which should win the prize over the other so I’m more eager than ever to hear what the result will be on November 13th. However, Hudson’s novel is also nominated for the Scottish Book Awards which can be voted on by the public here: http://www.scottishbookawards.com/vote/
While I haven’t read any of the other books listed for this prize I’d strongly suggest you support Hudson’s book by voting for her to encourage an innovative and very promising author.