This novel came into my hands in quite a different way to the usual trip-to-the-bookshop routine. Anyone who looks on my Twitter or Facebook feeds for more than 30 seconds will know that I’m currently searching for a job in publishing. As such, I decided to become more actively involved in the literary scene in my home city of Hull (incidentally, the City of Culture for 2017!).
It was at a literary event named Head In A Book (run by the editor of local publisher Wrecking Ball Press) at Hull Central Library that I first heard about the book. I hadn’t read it before attending, and so I went into the event a little blind. The author, Kerry Hudson, was giving a talk with fellow author Russ Litten about this book and also about her newest novel, Thirst, which is on my ‘to be read’ pile. Immediately after the talk was finished, I went ahead and bought the book. There was no way I was leaving without a copy. Russ and Kerry did a great job of selling it to me!
First off, I should state that Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (I’ll refer to it as Tony Hogan for short from here on out) is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. In a good way! To use such a narrative viewpoint is extremely brave; Kerry Hudson said herself at the event that she expected to be ‘given a lot of stick’ for writing a first person narrative which begins in a child’s infancy (from the minute she’s born, in fact). When I heard about this, I was dubious as to whether it would work. My first thought was that it would lose credibility as nobody could physically remember things – in such detail, at least – from such an early age.
However, it doesn’t seem to take away from the book at all, at least in my view. If anything, it works to highlight how easily a young girl can grow up perceiving the poverty, conflict and brutality of her life as normal. It also helps solidify Janie’s bond with her mother, Iris. Despite Iris’ flaws and occasional neglect, Janie is utterly devoted to her as she is growing up. Iris is her lifeline and her only chance of survival, and in setting the book at the absolute beginning of Janie’s life, the author manages to convey that perfectly.
The novel follows Janie, ‘the latest in a long line of Aberdeen fishwives’, as she and her family go through life moving from council estate to council estate, in increasingly dangerous and deprived situations, struggling to survive in a state of constant poverty. But Janie is different. She’s seen her mother, and the generations before her, failing to make anything of themselves and she decides that she wants more from life.
Kerry mentioned in her conversation with Russ that one of her original titles for the book was Echoes of Small Fires (a line from the book), but the publisher decided against this as it was “far too literary a title” for a book with such brutal subject matter (and so much swearing!). Be that as it may, the book is filled with “literary” language that really sets the writing apart. Take, for example, this line:
It was so quiet I wondered if the people who lived there ever turned up the telly or stitched their sentences with shouted swear words aimed to wound.
The entire novel is peppered with beautiful and lyrical wording such as this, which works fantastically as it contrasts heavily with the harsh subject matter, making it seem even more shocking. Because of this, I found myself really feeling for Janie and her entire family. Yes, they are surrounded by drug takers, alcoholics and dole bums, but Hudson portrays Janie, her little sister Tiny and her mother Iris in such a vulnerable and tragically fragile way that you cannot help but want more for the family. Here it is not a case of rooting for the legally and morally perfect protagonist – there are none in this book. But Hudson managed to make me overlook the character flaws and wish for a better world for Janie, because in a better world she could become a better person.
The Observer reviewed Tony Hogan and described it as ‘colourful, funny, joyful and compelling.’ While it is definitely not ‘joyful’ throughout (in fact there are some pretty grim and upsetting scenes) it is ultimately a very realistic piece of work that grips you from beginning to end. It is funny, it is sad, and it is definitely compelling. The characters will stay with you for much longer than it takes to read the book. And considering how good it was, it didn’t take that long to finish.
Novels like Tony Hogan are what the literary and publishing world seems to be lacking for the most part. One of the main themes of Kerry’s talk at Head In A Book was the working class writer and the struggle to get published. Kerry and Russ talked at length about the difficulties facing working class writers due to elitism in mainstream trade publishing. Kerry argued that the publishing industry needs to introduce a wider spectrum of voices – including working class voices – into literature. She stressed that it is the job of publishing and writing professionals to break free of the mindset that some people of a certain type (i.e. working class or underprivileged, forced into a criminal lifestyle) ‘do not deserve to be seen in literature.’ These things DO happen, these people DO exist, and they have a right to be heard and represented in writing.
As a result, Kerry runs an amazing and inspiring project called the WoMentoring Project which offers ‘free mentoring by professional literary women to talented up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities.’ – womentoringproject.co.uk
This writer is not only speaking out and being heard on behalf of working class female writers everywhere – she is also paving the way for others to do the same.
You can follow these people on Twitter:
Kerry Hudson @KerrysWindow
Russ Litten @RussLitten
Hull Libraries @hull_libraries
Hull City of Culture @2017hull