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.




Nicola Monaghan's "The Killing Jar"

Nicola Monaghan’s “The Killing Jar”

The Killing Jar, by Nicola Monaghan, is set in Nottinghamshire. Or rather, it is set in a “shitty brown” (60) estate seemingly in the middle of nowhere, abandoned by the police and any other sign of officialdom so that crime is rife and drug addiction a plague. This county, in the East Midlands, the novel seems to say, is neither north nor south. It is in limbo, in the crease of England. Abandoned. Forgotten. The estate itself is a depressing hovel, closed off from the rest of the world; a jar, Monaghan suggests, in which inhabitants, like insects, fester uselessly until the end.

Kerrie-Ann is a child growing up on this estate, sharing a house with a mother addicted to heroin and a series of wheeler-dealer boyfriends who slowly drag her into their seedy world. By the age of 10, Kerrie-Ann is already running drug-related errands for her so-called guardians, and that’s just the start of it; as we follow her through her teenage years, we meet sickness, death, violence, heartbreak, and a heck of a lot more drug abuse. The novel is miserable, there’s no getting away from it, but it’s also mesmerising.

Most of the time the characters “[don’t] move from the estate” (134-5); everything outside its boundaries that is “foreign” (2) is despised, and yet there is also huge hatred for the neighbourhood’s own “tossers” (25). In fact, anger is the ruling emotion in these parts, and even on the odd occasion that the characters venture off the estate, the dark clouds of their home lives follow them, inescapably. That is not to say that the characters do not try, in vain, to escape, through the abuse of drugs. Kerrie-Ann herself uses them to “remember there was other places away from my house on the close” (10) and to convince herself she “Had wings. Could fly” (39) to them. Whether or not she ultimately succeeds in this endeavour is up to the reader to decide.

One of the biggest measures of ‘place’ in the novel is accent, the differences between which Kerrie-Ann is fascinated by. She recognises the sound of those from northern “mining country”, with intonation “broader than my mam or me” (12), and the “posh voice and fancy manners” (80) that signify an individual’s London roots. In fact, the people on the estate spend a lot of time “making fun of [t]his accent” (112), “add[ing] h’s all over, dropped from other places, and put[ting] on that voice […] trying to sound posh” (34). Kerrie-Ann doesn’t like London, or its “wankers who thought too much of themselves” (144), or who are “too spoiled from being well off” (81). In her experience, southerners only undertake the journey to the estate out of self-interested charity, “some kind of community service” to “shove on [a] job application” (76), or to carry out academic experiments on its inhabitants, as though dissecting scientific specimen in a laboratory.

An entomologist's killing jar for insects

An entomologist’s killing jar for insects

I’m trying not to give too much of the game away, but Kerrie-Ann is young – no more than a teenager – when massive problems and colossal decisions come her way. The devastation of her childhood years is one of the most noticeable themes in the novel: as a young girl, she plays with “horse-riding Barbie” (38), but only as payment for her drug-running; she watches “the man dressed as a bear explaining to the pink hippo and the orange grin how to share a cake” (36) on television whilst various dirty visitors shoot up in a corner; she plays princesses and fairies “in the middle of Whitwell Park wearing clothes close to falling off […] with holes in them” (226); she combines trips to the children’s playground with her own first forays into drugs.  Even as a teenager Monaghan gives constant reminders of her lost childhood; at the beach, she longs to “build a sandcastle, […] a big one with a moat” because she feels “still a kid really” (103). And, like a kid, she is still scared of “ghosts” (141) and “werewolves. Bogeymen” (146) – only now the monsters take the form of drug addicts and wild-eyed vandals. Wrapped in this nightmare, Kerrie-Ann is shown to be constantly swapping between a feeling of adulthood and childhood, a conflict that is exploited by everyone around her, who “called me Kerrie-Ann if they wanted to lecture me […] But if they wanted me to do summat for them it were ‘Kez’ or ‘Kezza’ or even ‘Kerrie-Anna’ in this teasy way” (200).

Red Admiral Butterfly, an important motif in the novel

Red Admiral Butterfly, an important motif in the novel

I think it would be impossible to truly enjoy reading this book. It’s tough-going, miserable and made me utterly uncomfortable. Because of its unrelenting bleakness, it’s not the sort of thing I’d usually choose to read, but I think that attitude simply backs up Monaghan’s suggestion that places like this Nottinghamshire estate, riddled with drugs and seemingly so far beyond help, are so often overlooked and ignored, inconvenient as they are to the  middle-classes to ‘sort out’. It’s an extremely intelligent and well-written novel, and its tone reminds me greatly of another East Midlands text, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe, which I loved. Perhaps I’ll get round to comparing the two some time. But for now, an admirable, albeit painful novel is The Killing Jar, to me worthy of a good 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Linden Woods by Michael Taylor, which I have high hopes for. Read along with me or join me next week to see what I thought!

MONAGHAN, Nicola. The Killing Jar. London: Vintage, 2007.

Featured Image: The Morpho Pelaides butterly, an important character in the novel.