Janie Ryan is born (accompanied by an opening line of eye-watering expletives) to a family of Aberdeen fishwives, and within weeks is turfed onto the streets in the arms of her Ma, fetching up on the rainy doorstep of a woman’s shelter. The book takes us through her life from birth to the summer of her sixteenth birthday, bouncing from council tenement to halfway house, from abusive to feckless boyfriend, finally fetching up on the shores of Great Yarmouth.
Ordinarily, I’d be incredibly unlikely to pick up this book. I run away from kitchen-sink drama in print or film, but a combination of the fantastic (though evidently Marmite) title and the buzz from blogs and awards-shortlists swayed me, and so whilst I was in London this weekend I picked up a copy in Gay’s The Word, and devoured it sat on chilly park benches, slippery train station seats and finished it bleary-eyed on the coach on the way home (appropriate, as Janie spends a good deal of time on coaches in the book, moving from one new start to another, although she suffers volcanic travel sickness.)
Kerry Hudson is clearly a very talented writer: it only takes a paragraph to set you on the tracks and keep you firmly powering forwards without once wanting to stop. The book is often grim – the council estates, the grimy flats, the dumping-ground streets, the dodgy areas are all described in all their filthy drudgers – but never in such an unrelenting way as to feel fetishistic or that the reader feels beaten down. It’s alleviated with veins of humour and ducks moralistic preaching on any of the freedoms Janie does find.
The reviews talked about ‘hope’ but I’m not convinced that’s quite what it has going for it — more a sense of marching on with ‘big bruised muscles for hearts’. Where Hudson excels is, in the flip of a page, taking you from intense sympathy to frustration, and in keeping the characters wobbling between likeable and unlikeable without diving headlong into either hero or villain. And, when she really needs to, she can tip you straight into darkness in a understated wrenching away – most memorably with (SPOILERS) the death of Janie’s kindly Uncle Frankie and the events leading to her teen pregnancy and abortion.
But don’t let those sentences fool you. This is not a ‘worthy’ attempt at an ‘issues’ novel. It’s neither valorising or condemning the ‘benefits’ class, and it definitely isn’t written with an intention of being nothing but depressing and grim. It’s bold, heartfelt and mouthy in all the right ways, and I’m glad I took a punt on a genre I would otherwise never have waded in to. Highly, highly recommended.