This month we encounter a down-on-her-luck mum striving for something better, and suburbanite wannabe poet, desperate for recognition
The Bookshop on the Shore
by Jenny Colgan
For her many fans, summer just wouldn’t be summer without a new Jenny Colgan—and this one certainly won’t disappoint.
When the novel begins, the heroine is, I think it’s fair to say, rather down on her luck. The penniless mother of a mute four-year-old son, Zoe has a spectacularly feckless DJ boyfriend and a depressingly tiny London flat. But then she moves to the Scottish Highlands: partly to work in the same mobile bookshop that featured in Colgan’s The Little Shop of Happy Ever After, and partly to be a live-in nanny at what the locals duly call “the big hoose”. (Naturally, the house comes equipped with an appealingly mysterious—and wifeless—male owner.)
Once again, Colgan demonstrates her highly impressive knack for turning wholly recognisable modern life into something approaching a fairy tale. As befits a book in which books play a central role, there are also firm nods to Rebecca, Jane Eyre and all those gothic tales about spooky country piles with creaky front doors. Yet, as ever, what really makes this such an irresistible read is Colgan’s obvious affection for her characters—and for her readers.
Brian Bilston (whose real identity remains secret) is often described as “the poet laureate of Twitter”—but don’t let that put you off. Diary of a Somebody is one of the funniest novels for years.
On the face of it, the Bilston we meet here is an archetypal middle-aged suburbanite. His greatest pleasures include custard creams and a well-stacked dishwasher. His biggest anxiety is forgetting to put the bins out on collection day. (Oddly enough, his wife has recently left him.) As his diary reveals, though, there’s far more to him than that—not least his determination to become a revered poet, despite currently having an office job that consists largely of pretending to understand such phrases as “Re-solutioning the Brand”.
Along the way, we get a suitably hesitant love story and a neat crime mystery. But even when Bilston is simply musing on not-very-much, the novel fizzes with one-liners and wordplay (“Her name was Yoda/A show girl she was”). It also has genuine heart—and scores of poems so witty and accomplished that, in the real world, their author would surely be as famous as, well… I predict that Brian Bilston will soon be.
RD's recommended read
Confessions of a Bad Mother: the Teenage Years by Stephanie Calman
published by Picador
About the only thing wrong with this funny, wise and heartfelt book is the oddly misleading subtitle. As it turns out, Stephanie Calman covers the lives of her two children, Lawrence and Lydia, from when they were eight and seven to when they’re 20 and 19 and have both gone off to college.
Luckily, whatever age they are, Calman writes about parenthood with the same winning mix of fondness and exasperation. She’s also good on how children don’t glide smoothly from one stage to the next, the way they’re supposed to. Instead, she says, they’re more like caterpillars that keep changing into butterflies and back again to caterpillars.
As you may have spotted, for example, many of the characteristics traditionally associated with teenagers—a desire for independence, a deep scorn for parents, sudden obnoxiousness—are not unknown in the behaviour of quite small children. And of course, teenagers themselves are by no means always the complete monsters of popular myth, but often fun, kind and sweet.
On the whole, Calman goes for the comedy aspects of parenthood, and the book brims with great jokes. But it also has its more reflective side, as she ponders the whole strange business of family life—sometimes with a touch of melancholy brought about by that classic parental conflict between wanting your children to grow up into happy, decent human beings and not wanting them to grow up at all. In fact, Calman suggests, the really weird people in a family are frequently the parents, with their wild mood swings and their inability to resist peer-group pressure.
Here, though, is a bulletin straight from the heart of her children’s early teenage years…
"It’s the seemingly smaller changes that can be the most painful, like when they come back from a stay with friends and you rush to hug them. And they take a step back.
Then there’s the extreme self-consciousness you get at this stage; suddenly, everything you say is lame, stupid and wrong, and you just wish you could say the right thing, the cool thing, just *once*.
For your dear, sweet child, so trusting and mild—well, ours never were, but anyway—has gone. And in her place is a genius who knows everything. She is in effect from the future, while you, like the Renaissance Church confronted by Galileo, dwell in the past. You’ve gone from being the Oracle to the Village Idiot. If any of this sounds at all *exaggerated*, imagine you’re in a Jane Austen story, life going along much as it always has, with the carriages and the whist parties, and fatal attacks of pneumonia caused by wet hems—when in chapter 12 you innocently open a panelled door and find yourself in Bladerunner.
Did you ever try to get in with the cool crowd at school and fail? Well, that’s about to be your life all over again. And to make it really humiliating, the cool kids are just that—*kids*. Thirty-or-whatever years younger than you. You’ve got a whole life behind you, with achievements, experience and knowledge; they haven’t even taken their GCSEs. But *you* know nothing.
Meanwhile, your teenagers want to be appreciated, need desperately to be *praised*, but throw it back in your face. But you must persist. This, I admit, is not easy.
Sample dialogue: ‘Is that your Art GCSE project?’ (Mumble) ‘It looks really good.’ ‘What? It’s total crap. Anyone can see that!’ In fact, what they mean by ‘It’s total crap’ is actually: ‘Thank you, I’m really grateful for the compliment but for reasons that are unclear even to me I am unable to express this.’
One way round this seems to be to copy Michael Caine.
In his famous screen acting masterclass, Caine shows actors how to underplay it. Unlike stage acting, where people in the back row have to be able to see you’re sad or scared or angry or whatever, acting on film is minimal. And transitioning from being the parent of children to the parent of teenagers is much the same.
For example, when Lawrence or Lydia came out at home time with a picture, we *used* to say: ‘OH WOW! WHAT A LOVELY PICTURE! LET’S PUT IT RIGHT UP HERE ON THE WALL WHERE WE CAN ALL SEE IT! HEY EVERYONE, COME AND LOOK AT *THIS*!’
And they would be very pleased. Now, when they do something impressive, such as passing an exam or starting a band, we must not sound Too Pleased. Nor must we hug them and cover them with proud, delighted kisses.
‘Oh, that’s good: well done!’ is about right, though on second thoughts I might lose the ‘!’.”
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