|Image from www.saltpublishing.com|
Salt, 1 August 2016
Source: bought from my local Waterstone's
When I was a child we would make family visits to Wallasey, the town the other side of the Mersey from Liverpool, where my mother's family came from. Sometimes we'd go to New Brighton, the seaside bit of Wallasey. It's probably been tidied up now but in the 70s it was a wonderful example of a tawdry, decaying seafront. The pier had gone, but there was a boating lake, a shabby amusement arcade ("The Bright Spot"), fish and chip shops, and a windswept promenade.
So at an impressionable age my image of the British seaside took a murky turn. That may explain why I picked up this book with its rain spattered cover and retro lettering when I saw it in the shop.
And immediately, we're at the seaside, a down at heel resort in the late summer. Susan arrives on her motorbike and takes a room over a pub, working in the bar and living apparently on crisps. She spends her time in the arcade losing money and drifting along the seafront smoking.
Then she begins receiving strange notes which might be telling her to "fail" - or might be blank.
Meanwhile, in a nameless inland town, perhaps in the Midlands, Bonnie, a disappointment to her parents, moves out of her their house and into a scuzzy flat - the sort of place where the carpet doesn't quite fit and previous tenants' belongings fill the cupboard. Bonnie has a couple of cleaning jobs, between which she tries to write. Her new landlady Sadie takes an interest in Bonnie's life and writing (indeed, something of an obsession) and pushes her towards completing her story.
Bonnie and Susan are alike in many ways - aimless, fixated on failure (but failure at what?) and there begin to be echoes between their stories. 'Susan' is Bonnie's middle name. Like Susan, Bonnie drifts between jobs, leaving when she can't be bothered any more: she's currently cleaning at an amusement arcade and at a lab that may or may not experiment on animals. Here she fall under the influence of Fiona, who begins to set her dares. Bonnie seems both innately suggestible and unlucky (a repeated motif is her being late for a meal, ending up with having nothing to eat) but also at some deeper level trying hard to control her life (she has shelves of self-help books, which she's read, though none completely).
As Susan tries to work out who the mysterious notes are from, and what they mean, Sadie suggests to Bonnie that they go away to - where else - the seaside. Sadie's convinced that the resort in Bonnie's book is a real place, and that going there will provide the inspiration needed to complete the story. It begins to look as though Bonnie's and Susan's stories will come together somehow.
This is a wonderful, tricksy, tart book, full of sly observations and self-commentary. Books about writers writing books make me wary, but this one really zings along. Bonnie, Susan and Sadie are wonderful characters - real, believable women. Bonnie is, we are more or less told, doomed to be a failure because she keeps being told she's going to fail. Her mother knows this, but it doesn't stop her snapping at Bonnie: her father is even worse (to be fair, he's not just nasty to her but to women in general: the TV goes off because even though it's the Wimbledon final it's only "the ladies"). There's something mysterious about Susan, and as for Sadie - well, I wouldn't actually want to meet her but she's a totally fascinating person.
As the story gets more complicated and begins to fold plot strand around plot strand, we also get the viewpoint of a psychological researcher, who was involved in some very strange experiments around suggestion and subliminal messaging - a central theme of the book - but, it seems, went too far in some way and was dismissed. There's a parallel with Bonnie's abandoned degree: we see fragments of Bonnie's abandoned dissertation, exploring the "meaning" of the seaside as a place where water and land, life and death, come together.
In many respects it's a map for this book. Sadie is probably right that the story will only come to its conclusion there - the only problem with that is, characters in stories have a way of doing the unexpected.
This is a lovely book from Salt, at once filled with penetrating observations and also, vaguely, diffusely, horrific. A story of manipulation, obsession and baffled intentions it'll haunt you the next time you hear gulls cry or the sound of rain on a seafront window.
For more information about this book see here.