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

 

Game-changing

Chris Cleave's Gold

Chris Cleave’s Gold

This week I’ve been reading Chris Cleave’s Gold, set in Manchester in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games. It follows the equally intense careers and personal lives of Britain’s two best female track cyclists, Kate and Zoe, and explores the difficult dynamic between friendship and rivalry as they train and grow up together, under the supervision of their coach, Tom. Whether for closeness or for competition, the two women depend on each other more than they think.

I chose this book, out of all the wonderful suggestions offered for Greater Manchester, for the same reason I chose to read Money Can’t Buy Me Love a few weeks ago – because of how recent the setting is. As I said then, it always amazes me when I find a book about events in my own living memory, having spent so many years reading curriculum-prescribed classics. Cleave, in an interview published in this very edition of Gold, explains this far more eloquently than I manage to:

“Some people find it jarring to read work that is set almost in real time. I understand that – it’s not something novelists generally do – but I like that territory for fiction and I suggest that it’s a fascinating space in which to be an artist, because it’s the space in which public opinion is formed. My novels area hybrid between reportage and fiction and they take place in the five year gap between the point at which newspapers leave a story alone and the point at which historians generally take up their analysis.”

'Fan-fiction' - is it so bad?

‘Fan-fiction’ – is it so bad?

Wonderful as it has been so far, my education – along with many other people’s I imagine – usually encourages me to associate modern writing, no matter how popular, with so-called ‘bad’ literature, simply because it might not (yet) carry historical or canonical weight or might not use complicated language or need footnotes to translate allusion and symbolism.  I admit I have been guilty of turning my nose up at Jodi Picoult’s global bestsellers, hiding my apparently humiliating enjoyment of Dan Brown and rolling my eyes at the epic Twilight series. But the truth of the matter is that these are the books that sell in modern times; the pursuit of understanding why certain genres have such cultic followings in the present is as fascinating and meritorious as the research done in any Jane Austen class, the real difference being that only one of these subjects has already been done to death.

(This video clip is a trailer for the 2009 book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody of Jane Austen’s classic in which the Bennett sisters are trained to fight the undead as well as to find suitable husbands.)

Think of this decade’s vampire phenomenon, the prevalence of zombie apocalypse fiction since 2000, and how, in 2012, erotic fiction suddenly became widely acceptable – even in the staunchest minds of our middle-age, middle-class relatives – and made its way onto bestselling shelves with Fifty Shades of Grey. Why then? Why not before or after? What forces are brewing under the surface of society now that might erupt into a new literary craze in ten years’ time?

I spent most of my final degree year (and all the time since – hence this blog) obsessing about these very questions, my interests shifting away from Shakespeare and Chaucer – as much as I value them – and resting on what I’d always dismissed: the current. I refused to stay in the closet any longer: having an interest in popular culture isn’t a cop-out; nor is it glamorously avant-garde. It’s a study of the nitty-gritty here-and-now, of the themes and events that are relevant to us in an increasingly battered world.

I love being on the other side of the dividing line that Cleave defines between history and fiction in this challenge. Producing serious writing set in ‘real time’, without being pejoratively classed as Airport Fiction or Chick Lit or Easy Reading – all the terms synonymous with Trash that sceptics choose to deploy – is a skill, and one that Cleave succeeds in. I find it bizarre that some reviewers describe his plot as predictable or farcical and his characters as underdeveloped. I completely disagree. I was deeply impressed with the descriptions of training and races in particular; I could feel the athletes’ muscular and emotional sensitivity twitching the pages in my fingers. There is an intense physicality and even sensuality in reading this novel which, aside from making you believe you’re on the racetrack too, gives the novel a cinematic feel – you hear the breath of Kate’s pursuer and the hum of Zoe’s tyres on the ground. It is not the same exhilaration as I felt when watching the London velodrome events on television last year; it’s much more tuned-in, more personal, more close-up. In short, Cleave is able to describe so much movement in so much slow-motion detail without once comprising on pace. Masterful. For this aspect of the novel alone, it’s a 4/5 star read.

Bodies at their limits: Anna Meares (Australia) + Vicky Pendleton (GB) fighting for victory in the final Sprint.

Bodies pushed to their limits: Anna Meares (Australia) + Vicky Pendleton (GB) fighting for supremacy in the final Sprint.

So finely tuned are the girls’ bodies, in fact, that the distinction between themselves as animals and machines is difficult to make, and Cleave’s juxtaposition of the two is hugely effective. Their “twelve thousand dollar American prototype race bike[s]” (9) are extensions of their own limbs, with “no distinction between their skeletal systems and the bones of their bikes” (74). In racing and training their reflexes are mechanical – superhuman, programmed in – and yet at the same time, bestial. Their senses are heightened to a primal state, in which changes in the breath and slight movements in the muscles of their competitors causes immediate and instinctual physical responses to achieve the most primitive of urges: to win. Teeth gnashing and claws scratching all the way.

And yet these girls have been friends for 15 years, through youth training, national competitions, the Olympics in Athens and Beijing…They are a support to one another, understanding the dangers of such a high level of competition, both physically and psychologically. There are, in fact, constant reminders of the damage it causes: Tom’s dodgy knees, the girls’ sore ankles, Zoe’s crash, Kate’s difficulty in juggling career with family life, Zoe’s brother’s early death and her resulting emotional trauma and failure to maintain relationships, as though “as soon as she got off the bike her heart was expected to perform all these baffling secondary functions – like loving someone and feeling something and belonging somewhere – when all she’d ever trained it to do was pump blood” (45). Cleave expresses, completely convincingly, the way in which racing obsesses them, consumes them and is always one step away from breaking them. They cannot even escape their bodies’ pressure when off the track, for when sitting on the sofa and unable to switch off, “Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race […] hopelessly” (11).

Manchester's National Cycling Centre, where the girls (and so many real Olympians) train

Manchester’s National Cycling Centre, where the girls (and so many real Olympians) train

The complicated relationship the girls have to their own bodies results in an equally complicated relationship to the space around them: they cannot belong. For Zoe in particular, everything outside the racetrack is described as unfamiliar and disconnected. Despite her ability to see practically 360o from her luxurious skyscraper apartment – she looks over Manchester city and can pinpoint Snowdonia, Liverpool, the Blackpool Tower and beach and Cheshire plains in the distance – she feels so out of touch with the ground beneath her that she is like a “ghost” (42). There is “no traffic noise; no sound of the neighbours’ TV; nothing” (44), her apartment no more than an empty space designated for living by a faceless architect. Even Management has identified the need for a “souvenir of Earth” this far above it and is intent on “making a ‘green space’ with birds and plants and a water feature” (40) – but the “Italian olive tree ascend[ing] silently past [her] window” (45) attached to its crane only makes Zoe’s world even more surreal.

In fact, the whole of the country seems, to Zoe, like a series of disconnected “planet[s]” (86), Manchester being one of them, the generalised “up north” (220) another and “Surrey” a third, where “rain comes in bottles labelled Evian” (221) rather than being icy cold and endless. (North-South divide, we meet again.) Much like her inability to connect genuinely with other people, she is unwilling to admit to affection for any place she has lived or raced.

Victoria Pendleton, GB's winner of Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint of London 2012

Victoria Pendleton, GB’s winner of Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint of London 2012

Ultimately, Cleave creates an excruciating world in which the girls race round and round in circles on tracks that never change: no wonder their bodies jar at the tension between so much speed, and absolutely zero movement. Kate notes at one point, “What good did it ever do anyone to ride themselves back to their point of origin?” (16). Add to this the pressure of personal lives and off-the-track developments and Cleave has produced an excellent novel that has as much of a human factor as superhuman. I’ve heard it said that London 2012 did great things for the popularity of cycling in Great Britain – writing this novel in 2011, Cleave knew what he was doing.

Next week I’ve picked up Maureen Lee’s The September Girls to read. Can’t wait!

CLEAVE, Chris. Gold. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013.

Featured Image: Anna Meares (Australia) vs. Victoria Pendleton (GB) in the Track Sprint at London 2012.

http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk/news/latest/541076/anna-meares-returns-to-international-track-competition.html