“‘Get out, you cunting, shitting, little fucking fucker!’ were the first words I ever heard. The midwife, a shiny-faced woman who learned entirely new turns of phrase that night, smoothed Ma’s hair.’
Is that not the most impressive opening line you’ve read? It’s certainly memorable. And so begins Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson.
It’s not just the opening line and the title that’s arresting about this story (incidentally, the title is the only thing I don’t like about this book – it’s too long to tweet). It’s a character-driven plot centred around Janie and her mother Iris, and their life in a succession of council flats, predominantly in Scotland. Regardless of where they are, the story is the same – there’s useless men, the dole queue, drink, drugs and violence to be had in any town. But loyalty and family bonds run deep and as you follow Janie’s rises and falls, you can’t help but become attached.
“…My eyes soaked in the 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 the gutters. Front gardens were filled with mouldy paddling pools and, occasionally, a rustburnished shell of a car. I had never seen anything so beautiful, so many colours, before in grey Aberdeen.”
You worry about Janie from the outset – her mother is battling depression, they’re virtually destitute and they find themselves in a string of abusive relationships. But here’s Hudson’s trick – Janie doesn’t worry about Janie because of course, Janie knows nothing different to the life she is living. And because Janie is such a compelling narrator, you’re okay with salad-cream sandwiches for dinner and a Mars Bar as a birthday present, just as Janie is.
As the experienced and worldly reader, you know how the story is likely to play out for Janie – a repeat of Iris’s ‘mistakes’, an incomplete education, the dole queue, drinking and drugs. And certainly Janie wavers – there’s plenty of wagging school, beer and cider, drugs, stealing and sex. But she’s not a hopeless character and although (thankfully) Hudson doesn’t go down the ‘against-all-odds-rises-above-it’ path, Janie nurses the desire for a bit more. A bit more education, a bit more time in the one town, a bit more joy for her mum. She’s not asking for much, she doesn’t expect anything and for those reasons, you stick by her.
Hudson writes so beautifully about things that are so ugly. Of Janie and Iris’s time at a women’s shelter she speaks of the comradarie between the women –
“Smiles lingered in the dark. Shared secrets, warmer than five blankets and a radiator.”
“We stayed at Grafton Hill for three weeks. In that time I saw tears fall into spaghetti-hoop dinners and spines jolt at the sound of drunken passers-by.”
This book is 99 Reasons Why meets Puberty Blues meets Trainspotting meets Angela’s Ashes meets Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. I’m quite sure that no one will ever mention those books together in the same sentence again but they translate to a story about an ‘ordinary’ heroine, coming-of-age, all that is grim, fierce love for family and the solace that is found in books.
I received my copy of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma from the publisher, Penguin Books, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
“Tony might have been an arsehole, but he wasn’t worth wasting a good Coke float over.”
How could I team Tony Hogan with anything but an ice cream float? Janie’s wasn’t elaborate but this one is – Our Seasonal Table’s Rhubarb Float (rhubarb is on my favourite and best fruits list).