Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (2012)
Boasting one of the best (and longest) titles I’ve come across in ages, Kerry Hudson’s debut chronicles the childhood of one Janie Ryan. Born to a single mother in Aberdeen (her American father having long since disappeared from their lives), Janie is a battler from the start (‘fishwives to the marrow, [the Ryan Women] were always ready to fight and knew the places that would cut deepest,’ p. 1). Janie’s childhood is spent in a succession of B&Bs and run-down council properties; and her mother goes through a number of violent and destructive relationships – but Janie comes through it all.
Hudson has a great eye for detail, and this is what really makes the places and characters in her book live and breathe. She’s unflinching in depicting the harshness of Janie’s and her mother Iris’s lives; but there’s humour in there too – both in comic scenes such as that when the young Janie tries to warm up Iris’s coffee in the toaster; and in wryer undercurrents, as when Janie misunderstands what the ‘wee bags of flour’ are that her mother weighs out for other people.Hudsoncaptures the ups and downs of life through this skilful control of tone.
I had an exchange with Naomi Frisby on Twitter recently about whether Tony Hogan was a grim book; she found it ‘unrelentingly’ so, but I said that it didn’t feel that way to me. On reflection, with everything that Janie goes through, it seems somewhat naïve not to call the book grim. I think what I really meant was that I didn’t find it bleak; that’s not just down to the good humour, but also Janie’s determination to move beyond her circumstances – and the narrative voice which acts as a constant reminder that she will eventually succeed. The road for Janie is rocky, and there’s nothing that can suddenly stop it from being so; but the story of how she travels it is engaging and compelling.
Katy Darby, The Whores’ Asylum (2012)
NB. The Whores’ Asylum is published in paperback as The Unpierced Heart.
Katy Darby’s first novel is a proper page-turner. I don’t care how overused that description may be; it applies to this book. The Whores’ Asylum is presented as a series of manuscripts from the late 19th century, beginning with one Edward Fraser’s memoir of his years studying theology at Oxford, where he befriended a medical student named Stephen Chapman. With expertise in obstetrics and gynaecology, Chapman began to volunteer at a refuge for fallen women, managed by an acquaintance of his named Diana Pelham. On later meeting her, Fraser realised that he had encountered ‘Diana Pelham’ years before, under a different name – and tragedy resulted for another friend of his.
The subsequent parts of Darby’s novel delve back into that past, and give Chapman and Diana their own turns as narrator. This enables a wonderfully gradual unfurling of the truth, as we come to see all three protagonists in a different light. Darby’s prose evokes period style without coming across as pastiche; this and a gleeful streak of melodrama help keep the pages turning. But Darby also finds time to reflect on love, and explore attitudes towards prostitutes (and women more generally) in Victorian society.
To put it more succinctly: read this book.