Tag Archives: coming of age novel

The Old Jest: Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston’s short novel, The Old Jest, a coming of age tale, takes place over a number of days in 1920. The main focus is an 18-year-old girl named Nancy, and when the book opens it’s her birthday. On the cusp of adulthood, Nancy has finished school and plans to attend Trinity in the autumn. There’s not enough money in this faded Anglo-Irish gentry family to send her to Oxford university–plus there are rumblings of “a war with England.”

Nancy is an orphan. Her mother died some years earlier, and she never knew her father, a man who remains a mystery figure. She’s been brought up by her Aunt Mary who bears the burden of the household since her brother, Gabriel died at Ypres. Nancy’s grandfather, General Dwyer is “potty,” but these days we’d probably say he has Alzheimer’s. One of the biggest dramas in Nancy’s life is her crush on a young man named Harry who has his eyes on the bigger prize of the heiress Maeve.

the-old-jest

Nancy’s diary entries make up some of the novel, so we see her confessional thoughts, and her desire that her grandfather die “before we become damaged by his decay.” She’s still a girl, and yet she’s supposed to act like an adult. Nancy chooses her moments to flip back and forth as if she can’t quite accept the responsibilities and polite behaviour of adulthood.

Outside of the safety and security of Nancy’s home, civil unrest occasionally washes up on their doorstep. There’s mention of the Black and Tans, but life in the household is mainly untouched by what goes on in the outside world until Nancy meets an IRA man who’s hiding out in an abandoned beach hut she frequents. He calls into question everything she’s been taught to believe:

“After all,” he said gently, “Your grandfather was a killer too, and no one makes sarcastic remarks at him for that. Not at all. They gave him medals and a pension, He wasn’t even killing to defend his own fatherland, indeed the very opposite. He was taking other people’s land away from them. Creating an Empire for a little old lady with a thing like a tea cosy on her head.”

There’s a sweetness hovering over the novel that partially comes from Nancy’s innocence and zest for life. (Some readers found Nancy annoying–I did not.) Some of the sweetness comes from the idea that we are glimpsing the last days of a particular lifestyle–although Nancy is initially unaware of the truth of the family’s circumstances.

I liked this novel, which has the feel of a well-fleshed out short story, for its bittersweet glimpse at Nancy’s life; by the time the book concludes, it’s easy to see that her world has irrevocably changed. Her innocence is gone, and so her childhood passes away, leaving her to face an uncertain adulthood.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Johnston Jennifer

I for Isobel by Amy Witting

I for Isobel, and that’s a curious title with a child like ring, from Australian author Amy Witting (1918-2001), is an episodic view of the life of the heroine. This is a coming-of-age novel, a dislikeable term which implies a sort of cookie cutter simplicity that is, unfortunately, underscored by the title. In the foreword to the Text Classics edition, Charlotte Wood admits that she bypassed Amy Witting’s work because “their titles had turned me off,” and that they sounded “girlish, flatfooted, giving off a cutesy, floral whiff.” Yet there’s nothing simple and girlish about Isobel or this novel; this is the story of a young girl hated by her mother who, with some assistance from an aunt, must make her own way in the world, and what’s striking here is the insular nature of Isobel’s life–stripped of nurturing relationships, sustaining friendships and no real mention of the possibility of romance–we are left with just Isobel, a child, and later a young woman who is interesting for her remarkably self-contained ability to absorb life through the sustaining fuel of books while cloaking her nature and desires into acceptable conformity.

I for IsobelIn the case of Isobel, we see her first a child trying to establish emotional barriers against her mother’s venom, and  after crucial events, by the end of the novel, Isobel appears to have broken through some fundamental constricting membrane and is on the road to finding her own voice. There’s a sequel to I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop. Witting had just started a third book in the Isobel series when she died, and that’s our loss.

This wonderful book opens on Isobel’s ninth birthday, and we are immediately dropped into the toxic spite directed towards Isobel by her mother. It’s not that Isobel’s mother ‘forgets’ her birthday–no she continually reminds her of the event and the fact that there will be no celebration:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

Every year at this time she said this; every year Isobel chose not to believe it. Her mother was just saying that, she told herself to make the present more of a surprise. Experience told her that there would be no present. As soon as they stepped out of the ferry onto the creaking wharf and set out for Mrs Terry’s lakeside boarding house, where they spent the summer holidays, the flat reedy shore, the great Moreton Bay fig whose branches scaffolded the air of the boarding-house garden, the weed-bearded tennis court and the cane chairs with their faded flabby cushions, all spoke to Isobel of desolate past birthdays, but she did not believe experiences, either. Day by day she watched for a mysterious shopping trip across the lake, for in the village there was only one tiny store which served as a post office too; when no mysterious journey took place, she told herself they must have brought the present secretly from home. Even on the presentless morning she would not give up hope entirely, but would search in drawers, behind doors, under beds, as if birthday presents were supposed to be hidden, like Easter eggs in the grass.

It’s through the lack of a birthday present that Mrs Callaghan’s spitefulness is apparent, and we never know quite why Isobel’s older sister, Margaret receives preferential treatment when it comes to birthdays–although of course, in order for spitefulness to carry its full sting, there’s no better way than to concoct an arbitrary rule for one child and not for the other. As scenes from Isobel’s childhood unfold, it seems that Margaret is not loved either. There’s a father there, silent, “tired,” and “pale,” and at meal times, one of the occasions when this toxic family gather together, he keeps his head low, ignoring his wife’s tirades. Over time Isobel learns that her mother has two voices: her so-called “real voice,” (the nasty one) and the one she uses when out in society. Isobel also learns that her mother uses rage to seek some sort of emotional catharsis:

Then she saw her mother’s anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it.

Her father used to do that, sitting silently while her mother raged at him, chewing his food slowly, turning the pages of his newspaper deliberately–doing what Isobel was doing now, But one night he had put the paper down with a fierce thump and shown a white face, wild eyes and a mouth gaping as if his tongue was swollen. His chair had crashed over, he had picked up the knife from the bread board and run at her mother, who was cringing away with her head at a strange angle and a meek frown on her face, her hands out in front of her and the line of blood suddenly across her fingers.

But before that, when he had got up, before she saw how real the knife was and how near, there had been two little glittering points of satisfaction in her mother’s eyes, two little sea-monsters swimming up from …

Isobel’s childhood absorbs only about 1/4 of the book. Soon she’s a young woman who has learned to contain spontaneity and emotion; she won’t learn so much through her own experiences but from watching the lives of others and, of course, from reading–a habit that sustained her throughout childhood. Salvation and sanity to be gained in reading (“Birthdays, injustices and parents all vanished,”) becomes one of the central themes of the book–from Isobel as a child discovering Conan Doyle and sinking into his books and forgetting, temporarily, at least, the fact that her birthday will be ignored. Then later, when Isobel lives in a shabby boarding house under the thumb of the tyrannical Mrs Bowers, her desire to read alienates her from the other boarders. For Isobel, reading is the most important thing in life.

She had been reading the novels of Trollope and whenever she wasn’t reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world, she was conscious of being in exile from Barsetshire.

Through significant episodes in Isobel’s life, events leave various lasting impressions, and it’s through these events that we see Isobel’s personality form. She passes through office life and eventually runs into some students who recognize her as a fellow reader. Through these relationships, she becomes involved, as an innocent bystander, in a side story of sad obsessive love, and again there’s the sense of Isobel observing the human zoo. As a child, Isobel is aware of the need to mask her desires and expectations as exposure only brings pain, and she manages to master these behaviors through her lack of birthday acknowledgement recognizing that not looking for a gift  “was a step towards the kind of person she longed to be but did not have words to describe–someone safe behind a wall of her own building.” It’s probably this type of strategic, deep thinking that saves Isobel from developing into a neurotic mess, but at the same time, she’s still behind that wall and has yet to emerge.

Towards the end of the novel, when Isobel mixes with a handful of students and finds some like-minded people, she is still an outsider. In one memorable scene a student named Kenneth notes the intense behaviour of a young girl who stalks a man who’s rejected her.  Although the rejected girl’s goals are very different from those of Isobel’s mother, nonetheless there’s a link there:

 “It’s amazing though,” said Kenneth, “what you can get away with if you give up caring about anything else, like self-respect and pride and all that stuff. Turning yourself into a projectile, so to speak.”

Review copy.

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Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole Me Ma by Kerry Hudson

“Janie. I’m, warning yeh, I’m about tae blow.”

Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma is an unwieldy title that is at least memorable in this bittersweet, funny and compelling story of poverty, single motherhood, and a series of bad choices in men. Get beyond a title that does the book no favours and a bumpy first few pages, and you’ll find yourself in a wonderfully, witty, sharp debut novel written by Kerry Hudson.

Tony HoganThe book begins in the 80s, a little awkwardly, with the birth of Janie, our spunky narrator relating the profanity which accompanied her birth–the result of a brief union with Iris who’d “been tae London and got herself preggers,” and some unnamed American, and while Janie’s birth is celebrated by the Aberdeen Ryan family, the hard realities soon hit. A fight with Iris’s bingo-addicted mother sends Iris onto the streets, and into the Grafton Hilton (“as the guests liked to call it,”) a woman’s shelter full of other bruised and rejected women, and then it’s off to council housing and the gritty slum of Monarch Avenue, a place that Iris initially resists as it’s a bad place for a “bairn.” According to Iris, “I might as well start shooting her up on smack now since that’s what’ll happen,” but Iris doesn’t exactly have a choice. But that’s one of the interesting aspects of the book, when Iris has options, she always chooses badly. But while Monarch Avenue strikes fear into the hearts of those sent to live there, Janie’s reaction, viewed from her shiny new pram, a gift from Iris’s brother, smack addict Uncle Frankie, is of glorious sensation.

On the way to buy the moving-in essentials–tea, milk, bread, fags, Jif and a half of vodka–my eyes soaked in our new neighbourhood. Graffiti and scorch marks, echoes of small fires, decorated doorsteps. Golden Special Brew cans and crushed vodka bottles, bright as diamonds, collected in gutters. Front gardens were filled with mouldy paddling pools and, occasionally, a rust burnished shell of a car. I had never seen anything so beautiful, so many colours, before in grey Aberdeen.

Iris notes that the house, at the end of the street offers an “easy escape,” and in a way Iris’s life is defined by that term–a series of escapes–moonlit flits from slums and grotty bed-sits, endless fresh starts and broken promises from a series of disappointing men. Janie notes that she “had a lot of uncles but Uncle Frankie was the one who came every week, bought presents and wanted to play with me and not just Ma. The other uncles picked me up for about three minutes and then put me aside like a fag end, not taking their eyes off Ma, or the bedroom door over her shoulder.” One of these men is Tony Hogan, the “Aberdonian King, or at least Duke of thugs and drugs,” a spiteful runt with a reputation for explosive violence who wears “streaky” underpants. It’s a relationship with catastrophic consequences:

Tony smothered the life that me and Ma had built, a furry mould growing over a sweating slab of cheese.

Although this is Janie’s story, the novel bursts with a colorful cast of secondary characters in this story of a childhood spent growing up amongst heroin addicts, glue sniffers, and alcoholics. While Janie doesn’t exactly have it easy her friends Davey and Leanne  whose “parents liked a drink,” envy Janie’s comparatively exotic diet which includes the occasional “Fray Bentos pie and peas or Findus Crispy Pancakes.” Leanne’s ma’s world centres on booze and whatever is left over goes to meals such as chips and beans, or chips and egg.

But Leanne’s ma was organized too and on Mondays we would often bump into her in the booze aisle at Safeway with four big sacks of frozen chips  thawing in her trolley. There was always a mouth-watering, fatty smell in the air at Leanne’s and at the beginning of the week there would be red sauce too.

This is a world of flush Mondays with the “long impatient queue at the post office to cash the benefits book before going to Safeway.”

For the first few days we had tinned spaghetti, fish fingers and pink wafers, but by Sunday the cupboards were bare and we ate a lot of toast and porridge and talked about what we’d buy the next day in the shiny aisles at Safeway. Over toast with a scrape of marge Ma explained she was just getting used to it and she’d find a way to ‘make the grub last’.

If this all sounds depressing, it isn’t. This is partly due to Janie’s love for her mother–even as she steers them towards disaster, but part of the novel’s optimism comes from Iris’s seemingly endless spunk, the way adversity slides off her back and a sort of naiveté born from desperation and misguided hope when it comes to judging men. Some of the humour comes from our narrator’s limited knowledge of the adult world:

Frankie always came over on Thursdays. He had to come once a week to collect the little bags of white powder that Ma measured from a bigger bag on scales with numbers like Frankie’s digital watch. Ma did the measuring on Saturday mornings and the little spoons and jumping red numbers always stole my attention, even from Fraggle Rock.

“Can I have a go?” My eyes were fixed on the shiny spoons, the soft white powder.

“No, Janie, how many times do I have tae say? Watch the telly.”

“Just tell me what it is though.”

Ma gave me a look and then sighed. “It’s special flour. An’ I have tae measure wee bags so that people’s cakes come out just right. Now watch the telly. If I can’t concentrate the cakes’ll be shite and then we’ll not have chocolate biscuits or cola this week an’ yer uncle Frankie won’t come over.”

Always on the fringes of society, Iris never rises above extreme poverty–sometimes she floats and sometimes, for  a brief period, she sinks only to return to the surface in another slum location, and over the years, her fierce tenacity is worn down by degrading disappointment recognized by Janie in one beautifully poignant moment. Author Kerry Hudson paints Janie’s colourful world with bold strokes, and while there’s a moment when Janie discovers a world within books, this is not overworn or clichéd.  Given the subject matter, it would have been so easy for this novel to slip off into sentiment, bitterness or loathing, but instead the author shows incredible talent in creating characters whose private lives are mostly sealed from those of us who have some essence of security, and while the characters are treated with empathy, their inability to change, extreme social disadvantages, and zest for self-sabotage is also evident.  In spite of adversity, or perhaps because of it, there’s an incredible ‘us-against-the-world’ bond between Janie and Iris and we see this in one incident when Iris is called to task for Janie’s swearing.

We left the nursery in silence, Ma smoking a roll-up, looking like she hadn’t slept in a week or maybe like she had slept for a whole week. When the nursery was just a grubby finger smudge behind us Ma looked down at me and said in her poshed-up telephone voice: “Will you speak to Janie about swearing? Fuckin’ busybody!”

I laughed and swung our linked hands.

“Aye, fuckin’ busybody.”

Pleas of laughter escaped us and spiraled up into the hot, blue Scottish sky. We laughed all the way home

The book, essentially a coming-of-age story, follows Janie’s nomadic life until she is 16. Janie initially, of course, doesn’t have any choices, so she follows her mother from seedy bedsit to notorious gritty slum, sometimes escaping with the just bare essentials –whatever she can grab–as Iris never settles down but moves from one tarnished opportunity, usually sparked by either a man’s promises or a man’s violence, to another. Towards the end of the novel, which flounders just a tiny bit, a teenage Janie ends up in Great Yarmouth, and it’s here that she’s able, finally, to make some decisions of her own. The big question, of course, is will history repeat itself or has Janie learned from the mistakes of her mother? This is a remarkable book reminiscent of the early works of Roddy Doyle, and it’s going to end up in my best-of-year list.

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Filed under Fiction, Hudson Kerry