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.
Saturday 20 July 1996
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.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 3 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling