Friday, 15 November 2019

Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Shall we start with a happy ending? I made it. I rose. I escaped poverty. I escaped bad food because that’s all you can afford. I escaped threadbare clothes and too-tight shoes. I escaped drinking and drugging myself into oblivion because ... because.”

Reading Kerry Hudson’s memoir, Lowborn, straight after Candice Carty-Williams’s novel, Queenie was fascinating and troubling. Hudson’s story doesn’t have the dimensions of race and immigration, but in so many other ways, the parallels are clear. Poverty. Deprivation. Toxic masculinity. Generational Trauma. Deeply damaged women not recognising that they are passing on the same hurts to their daughters and granddaughters. And the consequences for those daughters: night traumas, panic attacks and self esteem that remains desperately fragile even when you have far, far exceeded the low expectations you were set as a child.

The books is, as the author says, “the outcome of questions that still disturb my peace.” It is a journey through all the places – from Aberdeen to Great Yarmouth – where she spent her childhood. Part memoir, part assessment of how things have changed – for better or for worse – for young people growing up in those towns.

It is also a raging protest against all those who have spent the last few years demonising the poor – calling them lazy, work-shy, scroungers. True poverty, she says, is “all-encompassing, grinding, brutal and often dehumanising.”

She describes the hyper-vigilance of a child constantly in foreign environments with strange people. The impact of being constantly told not to utter a word about what was happening in your childhood – your body seizing up, your mouth refusing to form words. “The words I heard spoken to me in my first twenty years are tattooed everywhere under my skin.”

For those of us who grew up in a different kind of world, it can seem as if Hudson is speaking from another planet, such is the divide that has been created and sustained in our society. And recent government policy has done little to improve things and much to make them far, far worse.

A necessary reality check and an antidote to the distorted portrayals of poverty in programmes such as Benefits Street.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Queenie by Candice Carty-Willams, Natives by Akala, Stopping Places by Damian le Bas, Common People (ed Kit de Waal)

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded what a desperately unequal society we live in

Perfect Accompaniment: An Aberdeen smokie (smoked kipper)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Overture (L'Alouette trilogy Book 1) by Vanessa Couchman

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.

I love the way Vanessa Couchman effortlessly breathes life into history, and her latest novel, Overture, is no exception.

Young Marie-Thérèse has a talent for singing but living in a poor family in rural Aveyron, she must work on the farm, and forget her singing dreams.

When tragedy forces Marie-Thérèse and her mother to leave Aveyron and seek refuge with her aunt and uncle in Paris, they are forced to work long, hard hours in their restaurant, Bistrot Mazars.

However, Marie-Thérèse also gets the chance to delve into the world of music and opera in the capital. And, when she meets someone who is certain she has a bright future, she dares to think her childhood dream might come true after all.

The author deftly evokes the contrasts of the countryside of rural Aveyron, with Paris city life at the turn of the last century. Disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic and the build-up to WWI are also woven through the storyline as we accompany Marie-Thérèse in her struggles, despairs and triumphs.

We want her to succeed as much as she does herself.

I was sorry when I reached the end of this beautifully-written and engaging story, but also pleased to see that Overture is the first of L’Alouette trilogy. I’m now looking forward to the second installment, and continuing this story with the characters I’ve come to know and care about.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: historical novels set in France, and tales of chasing your dreams against all odds.

Avoid if you don’t like: Leisurely-paced, coming-of-age historical stories.

Ideal accompaniments: baguette, cheese and French wine.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Buy this book here