White wine in a thin green glass

My Silver Shoes by Nell Dunn, Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99; 30 years after her best-selling novel 'Poor Cow' was published, Nell Dunn has written the sequel.

Authors who concern themselves with those at the bottom of the heap rarely achieve the kind of recognition accorded those who write about more genteel folk (unless they happen to be Scottish or Irish, and preferably brutal, drunken and/or drug-addicted - in which case it is okay to be poor). In a literary culture which rewards flashy prose, reading the work of Nell Dunn is like taking a long cool drink of water after a night of cocktails full of plastic monkeys and paper parasols. Her style is simple, her characters engaging. Her plots appear to meander while leading you to the relentless conclusion that for most people life is terribly hard and unfair although courage and optimism can make it worthwhile.

My Silver Shoes is the follow-up to one of Dunn's best known works, Poor Cow, published in 1967. Ken Loach turned it into his first feature film, a verite classic with all the power of Cathy Come Home. Carol White starred as Joy - young, blonde, naive - who at the beginning of both book and film has produced her first and only child, the much-loved Jonny, by the brutal Big Tom. Her life brightens when Tom is put inside for burglary only to go horribly awry when he gets out and they try to rebuild their marriage in Catford. (As someone who used to live in Catford, I can testify to what an uphill struggle that would be). The novel ends inconclusively, on a note of resolution from Joy which is undercut by the considerable difficulties we know she will continue to face. It was a book crying out for a sequel.

Nearly 30 years later, My Silver Shoes finds Joy divorced but cohabiting with a dry-cleaning delivery man called Jeff. Her mother Gladys is ensconced in the flat next door and has a habit of letting herself into Joy's place just when she and Jeff are playing with the sex toys they bought in Amsterdam. Jonny is grown-up and stationed with the British Army in Northern Ireland but will soon re-appear as a deserter, hiding in the sitting room and playing the radio at full volume. If he doesn't smoke Joy's last fag, then Gladys will. The two of them are driving her round the twist.

At first, Joy seems in as much of a pickle as she was in the earlier book, but we gradually realise that she has got herself together, even though she is forced to give up her much-loved work at the job centre to care for the increasingly irascible Gladys. Throughout the novel, there is a great deal at stake. Joy is persistently good-humoured and optimistic but there is always the danger that circumstances will overwhelm her. It is a measure of Dunn's skill that she portrays the bleakness of life on a South London housing estate without ever being mawkish or sentimental: nor do you ever feel that she has a political axe to grind. She simply presents Joy's life and lets readers draw their own conclusions.

The apparent realism and simplicity of this book hide the fact that it is extremely artful. "No tricks!" Raymond Carver was fond of declaring, seemingly unaware that the American brand of Dirty Realism was one of the most highly stylised prose forms going. British realism has always been more subtle but, in its own way, just as wrought and My Silver Shoes is an excellent example. The narrative form is mostly third person but occasionally drops casually into first, as it did in Poor Cow, with the addition of interpolations from the point of view of Gladys or Jonny.

From a more self-conscious writer this would be irritating but we are so in love with Dunn's characters that she gets away with it. Gladys is in her eighties but still has a lover of her own, the silent Toddy. "He's got no conversation," she complains, "he's just a shape in the other chair." She goes to a Day Centre but complains that everybody there is "old-fashioned." She is both individual and archetypal, the elderly relative we all adore but want to strangle.

But it is Joy herself who is at the heart of this almost heart-breaking book. Her life is a series of precious snatched moments alone. One evening, she sneaks into her own flat so that Gladys won't realise she's at home, and hangs some new curtains she has sewn herself at a friend's house. Then she makes herself a prawn cocktail and pours a glass of white wine in a thin green glass, gazing with pleasure at the curtains. Her few minutes of peace are shattered when Jeff calls on his mobile because his van has broken down at the end of the road and he's freezing cold and wants a Marmite sandwich.

It is at times like this that the novel could become crude, but when Joy and Jeff are sitting in the back of his van and she complains that her ears are cold he cups his hands over them and blows hot air to warm them up. Such tender moments punctuate the book - and it is this warmth and gentleness which make Dunn one of our most incisive observers of the human condition.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all