Rachel Massey, who works with truant youth at Liverpool's Kirkdale Community Centre, is enjoying her maternity leave with mixed emotions: anticipating life as a first-time single mother but also feeling left out of the goings-on at work.
Rachel wanders her beloved city streets, drinking in views of the Mersey, glancing in at cafés she used to frequent and nostalgically musing on memories of her Huddersfield-bred father's old garden and her super-organised Scouser mother's ability to polish windows till they shine.
Interspersing her memories with visions of the future, Rachel conjures up blissful images of herself as a doting mother with a perfect, adorable child who – she's certain – is a boy. ("He'll be here, in my arms, any time now ...") While she waits, she mooches about in bookstores and churchyards, lulling herself into an all-encompassing mood that's both exhilarated and languid: "I find myself vacillating between the books I want to have read and those I want to read. I fudge it, plumping for a collection of Paul Bowles essays and Jackie Collins' Lady Boss."
But this approach belies the fierce grasp of control that Rachel likes to have over her life and her experiences. During one of her walks, she ducks out of sight when she sees Vicky, a colleague from her National Childbirth Trust group. Vicky, already a new mum, "will do that thing", Rachel thinks, "of asking if I want to hold her baby; she'll think she's being nice. I'll have no choice but to feign delight and offer up my arms. And it's not that I don't want to hold her baby, I just don't want to hold a baby. Not yet. The truth is I've never held a newborn before ... At the back of my mind, ever since I saw that kidney bean on the screen, I've always had it that the moment should be special, the moment they heft my child on to my chest. I'm saving myself, as fluffy and girly as it sounds. For my baby. For him. I want it to be brand new, I want it to be perfect."
Not relishing the thought of her dad's partner, Jan, being involved in the birth – Rachel's mother died 15 years earlier – Rachel stubbornly takes herself and her contractions to the hospital by taxi. And though the pregnancy is the result of "a knee-trembler with an old flame" – during last year's Christmas work do, no less – Rachel has already decided to keep the fact of the baby a secret from the father.
So far, so meticulously planned. But she – and we – are in for a rude awakening. New motherhood proves to be a jangle of frazzled nerves, sleeplessness and seemingly endless, jagged crying on the part of young Joseph Ishmael Massey. (Yup, it's a boy.) Rachel is beside herself: determined to cope, frantically desperate to sleep and increasingly deceived by her own thoughts and impressions, as the world around her splinters into ragged slivers of bewildering days and bleary-eyed night-time walks. Then, too, there's the extent to which Rachel still feels highly invested in her very charged, very complicated relationship with the baby's father, Ruben.
Whether conjuring up the sights, smells and sounds of Liverpool's Carnival, where a 14-year-old Rachel first falls for Ruben ("I was intoxicated. Ruben was my mission and the very act of tracking him was magical in itself"), or recreating the terrifying agony of sleeplessness – mind-sharpening and stupefying at the same time – Walsh is wonderfully in control of her world. Rachel's frenzied fatigue – which spirals rapidly and exponentially out of control – seeps off the novel's pages, inexorably carrying you along on her sleep-deprived journey.
And you want to go along: Walsh is so terrific at making Rachel's universe immediate and vivid that you stay, immersed and riveted, as Rachel's world goes topsy-turvy: she now paces with a pram, exhausted, her once-comforting city sprawl, from Toxteth's Princes Park to the newly gentrified docks, suddenly offering meagre refuge and no relief. She and Joe pass entire nights awake, entire mornings glued to children's breakfast television. Rachel falls asleep randomly (on park benches; at the Tate Liverpool), leaves manic messages on family and friends' answering machines, clashes with healthcare workers and midwives, and goes on benders with strangers.
One of the more unusual, urgent young voices writing in Britain today, and very much of today's Britain, Walsh boldly confronts contemporary life, and her latest novel is a combustible combination of raw emotion and deep compassion. Though she feels utterly alone, it's clear that Rachel is not, and as family and friends rally around, the novel suddenly takes on a new focus. This, in the end, is not a book about terror or pain or loneliness, but a book reflective of life itself, in which large, unsettling uncertainties are often generously balanced with small kindnesses.
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