Piering Forwards

Dorothy Koomson's "The Ice Cream Girls"

Dorothy Koomson’s “The Ice Cream Girls”

When ITV dramatized Dorothy Koomson’s novel, The Ice Cream Girls, into a 3-part television series in 2013, I deliberately abstained from watching it in order to read the book first. I am frankly relieved that I have finally found an excuse to pick it up, thanks to this literary challenge. The novel is set mainly in Brighton, in East Sussex and deals with the complex relationship between two women, hardly more than mere strangers to one another, who were nevertheless thrown together in a series of dark events during their adolescence, the consequences of which are still wreaking havoc around them 20 years later.

Serena, brought up comfortably in a middle-class home, the daughter of a lawyer and with a bright future ahead of her, catches the attention of her history teacher Mr Marcus Halnsley at age 14. Serena’s naiveté and insecurity instantly become food for Marcus’ ego; he abuses his position to weave her into his paedophilic web of sex, fear, violence and manipulation. Moreover, he uses Serena’s teenage capacity for self-loathing to turn her into his slave – she is desperate to please him and far too scared and dependent on him to flee. At the same time, Serena truly believes she and Marcus are in love.

Much to her horror, however, Marcus soon takes another innocent under his spine-chilling wing – Poppy – who is Serena’s opposite on the social spectrum, being from a working-class, unwelcoming home, but who is similarly tricked into believing Marcus’ lies. Marcus pits Serena and Poppy against each other – the pair meet occasionally, converse rarely, compete for Marcus’ ‘affection’ always.

Brighton once state-of-the-art West Pier, opened in 1866 but closed and subsequently left to ruin in 1975.

Brighton once state-of-the-art West Pier, opened in 1866 but closed and subsequently left to ruin in 1975.

Then a dreadful accident happens. Before they know it, both girls – now 18 and 19 – are being trialled for Marcus’ murder. Each girl blames the other. But eventually, Poppy is incarcerated for twenty years, while Serena goes free.

Twenty years later, Poppy is freed and returns to Brighton, desperate to punish Serena; Serena, meanwhile, dreads the resurrection of the past and its impacts on the lives of her husband and children. But will the truth ever come out?

Sticks of sweet Brighton rock

Sticks of sweet Brighton rock

I think anyone would agree (despite how poorly I may have summarised it myself) that the plot is a desperately gripping and original one. In particular, the abusive relationship the girls find themselves in is constructed so chillingly as to stay with the reader long after the novel ends. It is, in fact, difficult to describe the tools Koomson uses to build Marcus’ fortress of fear: it is not so much the language of cruelty he uses, or the dreadful things he does, but rather the whole atmosphere of terror that keeps Poppy and Serena glued to him. Indeed, I suspect that this portrait of abusive relationships is incredibly realistic – Koomson has discussed the large number of harrowing real-life stories she listened to whilst researching the book – and is what leads to the fact that outsiders (in the novel’s case, the jury in the murder trial) are unable to understand why the girls did not simply walk away. In contrast, the reader cannot but understand, being wrapped up in their emotions so vividly.

I loved the character of Poppy too, as someone recently released from prison and whose struggle to belong in the modern, unfamiliar world is just as difficult as her struggle to make sense of the past, and of the fact that she has, unjustifiably, had her whole youth stolen from her. “For a very long time,” Poppy narrates, “I thought the sky was that square of patchwork quilt because it was all I could see from most of the prison cells I’ve lived in” (25). But the sky is not square and the world is not of manageable, reasonable size; coming out into the real world Poppy is stunned at the “titanic sky, gigantic world, dazzling daylight, swarming streets […] People think that prisons are overcrowded, but this is overcrowded. This is like being trapped inside a swarm of insects. Everyone so close and big and moving, moving, moving” (25-6). Koomson paints her as dark, bitter and vengeful – all the characteristics you might expect from someone who has been wronged in life – and yet Poppy is also shown to be filled with the same innocence and vulnerability as she exhibited through her teenage years. Overall, Poppy is a marvellously complex and believable character.

Soft serve ice cream, against Brighton Pier

Soft serve ice cream, against Brighton Pier

Serena is less engaging. She has spent the last twenty years attending university, meeting her husband, having children and moving on with her life. Of course, she experiences constant fear of the past coming back to haunt her, and occasionally relives Marcus’ cruelty in uncontrollable flashbacks, but with a new name and Poppy (as well as the truth) locked up far away, she has had a much easier time of managing her recovery. Or, perhaps, she has simply delayed facing up to what happened.

Either way, I was ever so slightly disappointed with Serena as a character and the girls’ relationship. I wanted Serana’s dread of Poppy to be more apparent. I wanted to find, stifled somewhere deep within Serena, the same darkness that Poppy has grown to exhibit on the surface. I wanted their relationship to be more hateful, suspenseful, painful and yet also more closely interdependent – after all, only these two can know what Marcus did to them and what happened all those years ago. Only they have the capacity to deliver the understanding and empathy towards each other that they so desire from other loved ones in their lives. I think Koomson could definitely have further emphasised this tension, tragedy and irony. If she had done, this novel would have been a knock-out for me.

One more thing the novel does do cleverly, however, particularly in relation to its setting in Brighton, is to invert stereotypes. Upon mentioning Brighton, I’m sure a lot of people (including myself) would recall going on happy school trips or family staycations, being thrilled and goose-pimpled by paddling in the English Channel, clambering over pebbles, eating sticks of rock and having delicious soft serve ice cream cones gobbled from one’s hand by greedy seagulls. In other words, Brighton could very well be the epitome of the English seaside holiday town, couldn’t it?

For Poppy and Serena, who had grown up here, their experience of the town could not be more different. Rather than sea, sand and ice cream being associated with sunny frivolity, Marcus ensures their days out together could be recalled with no emotion except fear. Serena and Poppy are nicknamed “The Ice Cream Girls” by the media following the murder, due to a picture printed of their pair “eating ice cream and wearing […] string bikini[s]” (3): what may have been an iconic holiday image is in fact a memory teeming with hurt. As a result of their experiences, Serena has not been able to face ice cream ever since and Poppy will not let herself, even after her release, “head down to the beach, dip [her] toes in the water, feel the pebbles under [her] feet” (26) or enjoy her surroundings. Brighton holds neither a sense of comfort nor one of touristic allure for them.

Jodhi May, who plays Poppy in ITV's television adaptation of Koomson's novel. Having finished the novel, I've finally allowed myself to watch it; May is the best thing about it and captures Poppy perfectly.

Jodhi May, who plays Poppy in ITV’s television adaptation of Koomson’s novel. Having finished the novel, I’ve finally allowed myself to watch it; May is the best thing about it and captures Poppy perfectly.

In this way, Koomson repeatedly problematises the idyllic images of seaside Brighton. All the icons are there – including “Brighton pier […] adored with hundreds upon hundreds of lights” (5) – but their presence is meaningless to the girls, inspiring no sense of pride or belonging. In fact, Poppy all too readily admits “I do not belong in this world any more” (28), while Serena feels out of place in her very self, with the “dark acknowledgement” that she is a black girl “in a predominantly white area” (51-2). Ultimately, and ironically, it is Poppy who seems most likely to recover her sense of normality most quickly, for she eventually admits that in a tourist hub like Brighton she enjoys the fact that she can avoid attention and blend into real life amongst all the different people, for “you have to try really hard to stand out or look out of place” (227).

Overall, this aspect of the book is one of my favourite and one that makes it a perfect read for my challenge: you get a real sense of its Brighton setting and landscape, even though that sense is not quite of the type you might expect. The plot is fantastic, the character of Poppy exceptional – but overall I was left wanting a bit more drama. For me, the novel is 3/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Alecia Stone’s The Talisman of El. Keep a lookout!

 

KOOMSON, Dorothy. The Ice Cream Girls. London: Sphere, 2010.

Featured Image: Brighton Beach with the iconic burnt-out West Pier in the background.

http://www.jurajhrk.co.uk/index.php#mi=2&pt=1&pi=10000&s=16&p=1&a=0&at=0

 

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The Root of the Problem

David Dabydeen's "Our Lady of Demerara"

David Dabydeen’s “Our Lady of Demerara”

I couldn’t resist picking David Dabydeen’s Our Lady of Demerara to represent the West Midlands in this literary journey – although I never met him, and wasn’t even aware of him until researching this novel, Dabydeen is a Professor at the Centre of British Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick, my alma mater. Not that I’m biased or anything. And although it was tough-going at times, the novel is a perfect choice for a challenge that wrestles with the issues of place and space.

Lance Yardley, aged 30, is desperate to cut his ties with the working-class council estate he was brought up on: Albion Hill, in rough and seedy Coventry. He seeks escape through his work as a (failed) writer, through his (dysfunctional) marriage to middle-class actress Beth, through trawling the backstreets of the grimy city for prostitutes, and, eventually, by travelling across the world to Guyana on the trail of a dead Coventry priest who was once a missionary there, and in whose memoirs Lance urgently searches for the meaning of life. A strange progression of events, but this is the journey of someone rootless, in turmoil and very possible insane.

Prof. David Dabydeen of Warwick University

Prof. David Dabydeen of Warwick University

It is not only Lance’s relationship with his lot that seems to have cracked; this novel problematises all relationships, including those between family members and spouses; between different classes and races even living in the same neighbourhood (Lance labels his own wife “’a bourgeois empty-headed cunt’” [13]); between England and Guyana, with a colonial legacy that has left the latter in a shambles. Everyone is separated by prejudice and ignorance; Lance is a man torn apart, in a world torn apart. It seems fitting that he journeys to Guyana, where “slavery done two hundred years now but the Negro still feeding on the past. He too lazy to make effort for the present and the future, so he save up the past like a hoard of saltfish, and when he chew his mouth go sour and he spit” (77). Lance is shown to feel the same obsession, hatred and resentment for his own history. These are emotions that abound in this novel.

But let’s get back to the beginning.

Dabydeen presents a hellish view of England, which suffers from “incredible cold […] grime” (53), “ignorance and spite”, where the only spiritual connection is with “the high-street shop” (54). Coventry itself seems post-apocalyptic, with “houses joined to each other in an endless march of bricks […] asphalt, metal” (255), interspersed with “burnt-out shells […] and the crowded graveyards [which] were testimonies to the German bombing” (64-5) of the Second World War. The air is filled with the “hideous rumble of wheels, the hollering of drivers” (256) and the whole place feels like “the ending of the world” (105).

The ruined shell of Coventry Cathedral, bombed in WW2, still stands today.

The ruined shell of Coventry Cathedral, bombed in WW2, still stands today.

In amongst this mess is the drab council estate, Albion Hill. ‘Albion’, the ancient and poetic name for Great Britain, is an ironic title for this district in which there is no sense of national pride or belonging, or affinity with those “posh gits”, “the ones with suits on and secretaries in offices” (40) who run the country whilst maintaining wilful ignorance of the working classes’ existence. The notion of ‘Britishness’ means nothing to the residents; they have abandoned it as it has abandoned them.

Not only does Lance feel disconnected from Britishness, but from the rest of his family and his neighbourhood too. His lack of belonging is a product of his childhood – during which time his mother walked out, his father (now dead) was imprisoned for theft and he was shifted continuously between foster families – as well as his ambition; he wants more from his life than “what every child in Albion hill aspired to – a council flat and the dole, the income boosted by a little burglary, a little trade in stolen goods, a little job on the side cleaning, plastering, decorating” (28). He is ashamed of his class, of “the cultural desert” (15) he lives in, of being “a local born and bred” (14) when others around him can boast such “exoticism” (45). His wife Beth treats her Indian heritage flippantly because her past is “utterly irrelevant to [her] life” (14); Lance is filled with envy, anxious to define roots for himself that mark him out from others, to which he belongs so completely that he can exclude her.

'Insulae Albion et Hibernia' (Islands of Great Britain and Ireland) from the 1654 Blaeu Atlas of Scotland

‘Insulae Albion et Hibernia’ (Islands of Great Britain and Ireland) from the 1654 Blaeu Atlas of Scotland

Suffering with “maimed wing and spirit” (121) without a proper family history on which to prop his existence, Lance goes on the hunt for “a moment of vision” (9), “wholeness and transfiguration”, a means to cleanse “his life of the accretions of Coventry dirt” (110) and give himself “depth” (93). His spiritual search does not get off to an auspicious start, ironically beginning on the streets of Coventry looking for a prostitute called Corinne. Indeed, no matter how far he travels away from it, the reader feels Albion Hill “in his shadow and his conscience” (68), recognising all his efforts as being “thwarted, unfulfilled” (69).

Ultimately, the only way Lance can discover his desired identity is to imagine it, to surround himself with a fictional version of the past and of his roots, to convince himself that he has found his home and his heritage. The life of the priest, Father Jenkins, is the key to the re-conception of Lance’s own life: through blending himself with the priest in his letters home, Lance makes himself believe in his own significance and value in his community. As though playing dress-up, Lance takes on a sudden spirituality that allows him to boast of inner “peace” (260) and present his transformation as a Christian reincarnation. Ironically, his fictional concept of self at the end of the novel, made up as it is of odd parts of other people’s lives and containing very little truth, is more severely jeopardised than ever.

At once, with Lance’s creative power over his story realised, the narrative of Our Lady of Demerara is thrown into chaos for the reader; if it was fragmented and confusing before, here is where it gets really mind-bending.

“My priest’s story was broken and haphazard. Cryptic lines. Gnomic paragraphs. Obscure notes. Doodles. Impossible puns. I would mend the sentences, make them flow, give them purpose and direction. I would design his life and where there were holes and gaps I would conceive of incidents and themes. My landfill would be my imagination but I would draw too on actual people I knew, give them places in the story. [They] lived ordinarily, purposelessly, even stupidly. I would revise their existence on the page, or originate a new existence for them […] If, because of my superior education, I owed them anything, then it was to rewrite them” (93).

  • If Lance is recreating his own life, what else in the novel is subject to his alterations?
  • Are the characters, Dabydeen’s creations, actually presented through Lance’s transformative eyes? Is Beth really so middle-class, is Miriam truly acceptant of her Albion Hill lot, or is that just how the frustrated Lance sees them?
  • Is this a novel with a frame narrative, and does the pervading authorial voice belong to Lance, and not to Dabydeen, as we assumed?

The reader begins to question their assumptions of ‘truth’ behind the narrative when it is revealed to be mediated by Lance, who is so hungry to reinvent everything and everyone around him, who admits to fabricating and “caricaturing” (46) people in his letters and plagiarising sentences from Jenkins’ memoirs, “purged or reinstated in different forms” (51).

Aeneas, the hero, flees Troy with his father on his back and his son at his side: 3 generations striding forth into the future. Unlike the rootless Lance who leaves his family behind.

Aeneas, the hero, flees Troy with his father on his back and his son at his side: 3 generations with hope of a new civilisation. This is unlike the rootless Lance, who leaves his family behind.

The effect is disorientating, alienating and, because of this, hugely successful. Lance is thoroughly unlikeable because of his cruel treatment of others – especially women – and seedy pastimes, and yet we are made to feel as disappointed by the state of the country and humanity as he is. We are guided, bemusedly and against our will, to Guyana on the will of his unhinged character and challenged to follow his incoherent, tortuous and, at times, dull review of his existence to a solution that fails to satisfy us – or the rest of the characters – because of its foolishness. And yet we follow it and this anti-hero, and pity him, because it is a kind of poetry; an agonised, filthy poetry.

I would go as far as to say that Our Lady of Demerara is the modern Aeneid, detailing Lance’s odyssean journey across oceans to develop a mythology on which to base his identity and to find a new home away from Beth, who is the Dido weighing heavily around his neck. But Lance’s quest ends in nothing; there is no promised land. Unlike Aeneas, Lance is not a hero; he is misogynistic, dishonest and corrupt. Nor is he sailing towards Albion, to a place where he can found a new Britain to be proud of; rather, Albion Hill, and Britain as a whole, is the ravaged and ruined land, like Troy, that he is leaving behind. Britain certainly is presented as ruined in this novel, guilty of a greedy colonial past, damaged by decades of war and capitalism, and plagued by a complete lack of unity among its immoral inhabitants. Britain is worthless, this novel seems to say; it has no future except further decay.

Aeneas recounts the ruin of Troy to Dido. Painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815.

Aeneas recounts the ruin of Troy to Dido. Painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815.

Overall, this was a novel that to read was not always pleasant but constantly impressive. Its characters were hard to relate to and barely developed, but that was the point. The narrative was nonlinear and fragmented but that was the design. The plot was slow-moving and unbelievable but it could have worked in no other way. It was epic, artistic, intelligent and truly awesome. I’ve never struggled for so long to decide on a rating for a book: if I was still at university I’m sure I would have rated this a full 5/5 for its sheer scope and literary achievement, but here, back in the real world, I tell myself reading pleasure has to count for something. Phenomenally constructed but hardly loveable for its bleakness, finally, 4 stars go to Our Lady of Demerara.

Next week I’ll be reading The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood, set in Cambridge. We’ve almost reached the halfway mark!

DABYDEEN, David. Our Lady of Demerara. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press Ltd, 2009.

Featured Image: Breugel’s “The Burning of Troy” c.1621

http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~peradott/Journey%20of%20Odysseus/n_Troy%20Burns.htm