Fiona Scarlett (2021) Boys Don’t Cry.

I’m weird, I find reading Acknowledgements instructive. Writing is a singular process, but a team game.  When you write, or try to write, you look at books differently. You look at the cover and artwork [tick]. You look at the publisher: Faber [tick]. Fiona Scarlett has got the backing of the one of the major league publishers for her debut novel. You look at the blurbs on the back. What famous writers have been hooked in to add for added publicity, verification of their writing talent, or quality control? [tick] Donal Ryan [don’t know who that is]. Kit de Waal [liked her debut novel]. Louise O’Neil or Ruth Horgan’s work [not read their work]. These are big hitters and my guess is they publish with Faber and they write about dysfunctional families. The biggest hitter of them all, Marian Keyes, sums up this book with one word ‘Beautiful’. Marian Keyes sells books in the tens-of-thousands-per day. If you can get a blurb from Marion Keyes, you put it on the front cover [tick].

Fiona Scarlett acknowledges:

‘To Cat, who after reading my first round of edits convinced me it wasn’t all a total pile of shite…’ [tick].

Less than a handful of debut authors get published by the big five publishing houses. A smaller number are worth reading. Writers that know what they’re doing are worth watching and reading. Few of us can see what they’ve written, what we’ve written. Saccades are rapid eye movements on a fixed point in a visual field. What we see is not what we’ve written, but what we think we’ve written. Measurement of saccades by other readers tends to flicker for a longer time (measured in milliseconds) on, for example, grammatical mistakes. That’s a large measure of ‘shite’ that kills the self-publishing industry. If you’re like me, you can’t see them, and jump ahead then you’re dead to publishers.

Where the eyes stray and tend to stay is a good place to start picking apart your edits. But you need other readers for that, machine reading can help with pattern-recognition. Acknowledging it’s a whole pile of shite is a good starting point. Humility gets you further into the words than, for example, two writers whose work I’d read congratulating each other on their great work, and wondering if they needed to edit it.

Don’t bother, the publisher will do that for you, was their way of seeing the world.

Fiona Scarlett did bother. She did the work. Write what you know included end-of-life caring. Her style of free- indirect discourse transforms the world of Jane Austen’s middle-class Sense and Sensibility, but it can also be tweaked to spill over into the common language of different tribes. It’s often a class thing.

On the page, Bojaxhiu, known as the Jax, one of four high-rises near Dollymount Strand, good for day excursions and ice cream. Being pushed around the back of the flats in a Tesco trolley, a no-go area for the Garda in Dublin paints a different word picture.

Joe O’Reilly, and his wee brother Finn, take turns telling you their story (from their point of view) [tick].

Their Da is a hardman, who beats their Ma [tick]. Working class. But their Ma doesn’t let him hit the kids. All rules aren’t equal. Life is never fair.

‘…His foot was on hers now. ‘Are you making a fucking charity case out of us now?’

‘Finn, to your room. Now,’ Ma ordered.

‘That’s right, send your little Mammy’s boy to his room, God forbid he sees what a real man must do to get some fucking respect,’ he said, pushing up against Ma.

‘Finn, you’re in goal.’

‘My arse, I was in last time.’

Myself, Jasmine, Dunner and Shane were the first ones there. We flung our school bags under the bench and stripped off our jumpers, running to mark the goalposts’

Jumpers for goalposts is a throwback to the kind of life we never lived, nostalgia sells [tick]. But there’s something the matter with Finn and he doesn’t even know it—yet.

Foregrounding and flashback [tick] lets the reader into the family’s secrets.

The bogeyman is Murphy, who Da works for as an enforcer. Everybody works for Murphy, or they mind their own business. Ma works in the local pub, which is Murphy’s gang hut.

Carthy, who Joe grew up with and lives in the same high-rise, is putting the squeeze on Sabine. Her mum’s borrowed money. Joe’s kinda in love with her, but Carthy’s just following Murphy’s orders. Only Murphy says when a debt it paid in full. Joe wants to right every wrong.

His Da is telling him, everything he thinks he knows—he doesn’t. But Murphy wants to bring Joe into the fold, make him work for him, like his da.

Boys Don’t Cry, aye, right. Read on.

Kit de Waal (2012 [2017]) My Name is Leon

my name is leon.jpg

Poverty is always a simple story full of missing people. In a week when American Congress has passed a Bill to give over a trillion dollars American taxpayer’s money to the obscenely rich, Kit de Waal’s, My Name is Leon, is a fictional, child’s account, of what it means to be poor and forgotten in Britain in the nineteen-eighties. The irony here is things were better then.

Leon is nine and he takes care of his mum, Carol, as best he can, his favourite programme is The Dukes of Hazzard. His mum’s life is chaotic. Drink, drugs and men. Leon has never seen the father of the new baby, Jake. Jake is white, his mum is white, but Leon is black, or more dark brown, but big for his age. Leon needs to take care of his mum and now he needs to take care of baby Jake. Jake is beautiful and funny and Leon loves him very much, but his mum is unravelling in front of him. Sometimes Leon gets help from Tina upstairs, but Tina can’t cope with Carol and Carol can’t cope with life. Leon and Jake are taken into care.

Maureen, the black and elderly foster carer, is an oasis of calm for Leon and Jake. I was recently looking at somebody’s story for them, and it was all tell and not show. That’s one of those gimmicky phrases like you need to kill your darlings that make you want to stick the head on them. But here is it, show not tell, translated into a world of caring in the term ‘neck-back’.

Right below the base of the skull, right where the knuckly backbone pokes up towards his brain, Leon has a little dent. It’s a groove that dips in between two hard bits and Maureen made it.

She must have made some kind of mark by now after six months living with her. It’s when she pushes Leon with her thick fingers whenever he has to do something, to go somewhere, to pick something up, to watch what he’s doing. Go to bed. She never pushes him hard, but it’s always the same place, same spot right on the neck… ‘his neck-back’.

Leon’s life would be perfect, if he had his mum and Maureen to live with them. But then he loses Jake, who is adopted by a white couple. Leon knows Jake need him to take care of him, but he’s powerless. And he’s powerless when Maureen gets ill and is taken into hospital. Maureen’s sister Sylvia is a harder kind of Maureen, but she agrees to take Leon in until Maureen gets better.  Leon’s not sure about Sylvia, but he is sure Jake misses him and he has a plan to steal him away and bring him up himself, perhaps with his mum’s help. Leon’s sneaky that way, stealing change from purses, nicking things he might need, preparing himself.

He meets Tufty at the local plot, a safe place where locals come to feel their fingers in the soil and grow themselves into better people. Tufty is angry, of course, he is angry, at the casual racism and the way the police trample over his plot and trample over poor black people’s lives. Castro, Tufty’s mate, is killed by the police, but, of course, it’s not the police’s fault. The race riot that follows provides a kind of denouement of the book. But first Tufty gives Leon some advice. Gives all of us working-class people some advice that in the propaganda war against the monopoly of the rich that we got battered and lost, and we sometimes forget.

When people fuck with you, you got a choice. You fuck back or you swallow down…Swallow down enough times and you start to choke.

Amen my brother, sister, mother.