Two things are unavoidable in Bristol novels: slavery and the suspension bridge. I’m now almost certain that a reference to Bath Spa University will have to be added to that list.
Tessa Hadley would have walked alongside C.J. Flood, Nathan Filer and Anna Freeman at Corsham Court in Bath as she lectured and still lectures at that university. One way in which she stands out from the rest however is that she has often been published in the New Yorker, including two chapters from Clever Girl.
In Clever Girl, she writes about Stella who we follow from the bedsit she shares with her mum in Kingsdown in the 1960s, all the way to adulthood and through most of Bristol. Stella’s auntie ‘Andy went to work on the factory floor of the chocolate manufacturers where Uncle Ray was in dispatch.’ The chocolate manufacturer is Fry’s which was based at Nelson Street.
There is a move from the city centre to a new estate on Stoke Bishop. We chart her various phases through location. Young, single mother Stella works on Park Row and lives in a commune.
What got very tedious for me was the constant description of everyone’s face and personality. The way they were labelled in such detail. Hadley says that “I never think that the material detail is an addition to the story. A story is what it is through the detail.” And yet those details have to progress the story not just be used to add words.
Stella is a sad and burdened kind of character who is talked about by her future self as if she spent her whole life lacking self-awareness. The characters aren’t easy to enjoy but the story did bring up something very Bristolian that doesn’t get discussed very much; the wide disparity between those who participate in higher education and those who don’t. Or those who have opportunities and those who don’t.
The map of Bristol above shows a range of areas with different levels of participation in HE. Dark blue areas are where most young people will go on to HE and the red patches show areas where few, if any, do. In Bristol, it is often the case that these areas are right next to each other. Clifton, Cotham and the city centre are all areas of higher participation and right next to St Philip’s where very few young people may know anyone in HE.
The two universities in Bristol are also very different. One is full of “girls and boys with glossy hair and loudly assured voices who’d been to private school” and the other is UWE, surprisingly not mentioned in this book. Stella in later life gets three As at A Level and ‘with these good grades [she] applied to university” and got in to study English literature. This of course makes little sense in real-world Bristol University. Every one who applies there has three As (or A*s now). Good grades are only a distinguishing factor if that’s what separates you from the other candidates. At Bristol this does not and most people of Stella’s background apply to and attend UWE instead.
Things Unborn by Eugene Byrne is the contender against Clever Girl this week and while I knew it was a novel set in London with very little Bristol reference, I just couldn’t resist writing about Byrne and seeing what his fiction was like. If there is ever a writer who knows Bristol then it is he. He has written about Bristol in magazines, online and in published books. He wrote about Brunel and about plans for Bristol that never did get built.
Things Unborn, however, is just not that informative about this West Country city. There is a wink at Bristol with reference to the Locarno Music Hall which used to be where the O2 Academy is now and was popular in the 1960s. There is also a pretty great description: ‘The great city of Bristol was the light and the shadow of their lives, a huge, sprawling, noisy port where merchants got rich on slaves and sugar, and the poor drank and pissed their money and miseries away in stinking dockside ale houses.
In 1962, the USA and Russia went to nuclear war over Cuba…after millions of deaths, people started returning. Not just those killed in the Atom War, but people who had died centuries previously. And they were always reborn in the place where they died, at the age of their death. In Britain, there were struggles for power between Catholics and Protestants, another Monmouth Rebellion. Now, in 2008, Richard III rules the country – although he holds no real power. And Protestant fanatics would see him, his government and their “Liberal Settlement” destroyed. A handful of policemen and their allies must hunt down the conspirators.
Protagonist Inspector Scipio Africanus lived his previous life as a slave in Bristol and is a reference back to a black slave or servant in the household of the Earl of Suffolk. He died aged about 18 and was buried at Henbury Churchyard, Bristol, in 1720. His grave is one of the few known burial places in the UK of an African from the period when Christian Englishmen traded in slaves.
The links to Bristol are there but not enough to make this book a real contender. It’s a heavy-going read with a lot of information to process. There are many explanations about the new reality, about the retread procedure, about each and every past era from which the people who have died have arrived. Also the new reality consists of current police procedures, geographies, machines and products that all take some explanation and then there’s the parallel world’s history, current politics and future trajectory. And in between all this there is a storyline.
The effect is one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld meets Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. A quality production but not light and breezy.
This week’s winner is unquestionably Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley.