Freedom Read #115

I saw Glen James Brown read from this novel as it was released 2018. He was someone I’d never heard of, it was his first novel, it was a small club (Wharf Chambers in Leeds) and he seemed really nervous, with his gentle north-eastern accent. It was wonderful.

The book is the tale – or several linked tales – told through different narrators, relating the years on a run down estate, somewhere on the edge of Middlesbrough. The stories take us from just after the heaving industrial disputes of the 1980s almost up to date. The heavy industry of Teeside is already on the wane, the value of the housing stock is in decline, the estate is not being looked after as it should be, “the wrong sort” are moving in – often roving gangs of teenage “scunners” as the dialect has it – eventually some unscrupulous housing association buys the houses up at below market rates, before building new stock and selling them above what the old residents can afford. The tales reek of poverty, of trying to get by, of folk pushed against the wall and disregarded.

There is the story of the last hairdresser on the estate, setting the perms of her last customers on the last day; the guy who runs the mobile library, with his 1950s rocker / Teddy Boy look; the newspaper man and his shop, the only remaining shop that could sell alcohol on the estate and so the one that gets burgled most frequently; and there are stories of young girls going missing. These people grew up with each other, played with each other, dated each other when younger, they frequently worked together – sometimes on less legitimate enterprises – and their kids, the ones who haven’t escaped yet, date each other now.

Of course the estate has a ‘big man’, who goes by the name of Vincent, who is thoughtlessly violent to humans and animals alike – and some scenes involving him need a warning to those of certain dispositions. One of the tales crosses into the rave scene of the early 90s, with a lot of drugs, confused wanderings around the home counties looking for barns, warehouses, trying to avoid the old bill, and three kids from the estate trying to make their own big event in the old water-treatment works on the estate.

The story that really pulled me in was the opening one about two teenage girls trying to navigate growing up together. One of them, Una, mysterious and sometimes almost a ghostly presence, has a difficult home life with her mother. She does a she pleases, bunks off school, wanders off frequently, doesn’t tell people where she’s going…probably described as running wild. She becomes an artist but again of a strange and ephemeral kind. She is most famous for a painting known as The Green Girl. Reviewing her work someone says that most of her surviving paintings are of much the same scene / atmosphere: dusky waterside, probably a river, some willows and reeds and a general feeling of foreboding.

Then there is Peg Powler – local legend and possible water spirit – who allegedly haunts both the open waterways and the sewers, water pipes – so much so that one character has his toilet lid sealed down with gaffer tape, out of fear that Peg will reach up out of the bowl and grab him. Jean, Una’s friend, is convinced that Una made a pact with Peg… And there is The Day of the Dark when the whole estate was inexplicably plunged into a “midnight darkness” and violent weather, at midday.

“I saw myself reflected in the tranquil murder of Gus’ dilated pupil…” is as good a description of a close-up encounter with a Sparrowhawk (called Gus) as you’re likely to read.

Short-listed for several awards, it is a cracking read. From Parthian Press: https://www.parthianbooks.com

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