Kathryn Simmonds – Love & Fallout (Seren)

October 5, 2014

Love & Fallout  Kathryn Simmonds Seren £8.99

Love & Fallout

Those of you who know Kathryn Simmonds from her (brilliant) first two collections of poetry, Sunday at the Skin Launderette, and last year’s The Visitations, might well be surprised by Love & Fallout, her first novel. It isn’t that it’s good, it’s that it’s so good. It’s not peculiarly common for poets to be able to manage a novel, and novelists vice versa. The structure and the rhythm of each genre is different. Sophie Hannah has done it (but I still think she’s a stronger poet); Adam Foulds has (but I don’t think he’s a successful poet, and I don’t mean as in reputation: he won the Costa. I just think his poetry is over-rated). Helen Dunmore does both (I like, guardedly, both genres by her). I know one could go on (yes, Plath; yes, Lawrence; yes, Hardy, although Hardy was interesting in that he effectively stopped the novels and turned on the poetry instead).

But this is no jobbing poet’s novel. It’s an arresting debut, quite the match of (and in a curious way, related to) Marina Lewycka (A Short History of Tractors in Albanian, Two Caravans, Various Pets Alive and Dead). I’ll come back to the problematic title at the end, but it’s intended to tell us there are parallel experiences – that of Tessa Perry, a forty-eight year old mother and wife whose relationships with both her husband and daughter are fracturing (her teenage Goth son is rather more amenable), and whose best friend has just persuaded a TV makeover show to give her a lift she doesn’t need or want. Or does she? The doubts that are filtered through Tessa’s perceptions of what is around her (it’s all told by Tessa) are really skilfully handled, handled with a wit that is very like the wit in Simmonds’s poetry. Simmonds is an ironist. She doesn’t do the ridiculous: she stages scenes so that the dialogue is teasingly on an edge between thoughtful and the comic (dialogue and structure are two of her strengths).


Kathryn Simmonds

Once she has established Tessa, who agrees to go along with the makeover because it will give television airplay to a campaign against the local common land being prepared for developers, Simmonds starts the novel on a gentle oscillation between the 1980s and the present. In the 1980s, Tessa has been dumped, has been a university refusenik, but has found some self-respect by joining the Greenham Common peace campaign. This is laugh-out-loud but mockery-free. It’s a wonderful talent to depict absurdity without ever lampooning it, and the trick is the believability of Tessa. Tessa is a far from perfect individual, but she has good, honest doubts about everything, and her seriousness (and innocence) make her an expert narrator.

Unhappy in the present, ill-equipped in the past, Tessa is nevertheless an engaging presence. The Greenham months (the novel switches exclusively to them at one stage) are documented as a kind of rite-of-passage tale. Tessa experiences all kinds of conflicting emotions, including the important one, love; we are shown how Tessa finds out what satisfies and dissatisfies her, and what helps us understand her edginess in the present. It is a dissatisfaction that goes much deeper than having her friends suggest she is the next best thing to a bag lady. Emotionally, she is tethered to the past, although the Greenham experience is a tag she would rather not wear. For her, Greenham has been about love above all else.

One of the pleasures of reading Love & Fallout is the inventiveness of the language. ‘The nearly full moon was encircled by a fuzzy white halo.’ ‘[The cold spaghetti] has congealed, solid and contoured like a section of brain.’ ‘… the particular tang of woodsmoke, a smell like old kippers…’ ‘I pictured her face, so small and pale and closed; it made me think of a shop in sunlight with the blinds pulled down.’ For page after page, these images appear, reminding you that Simmonds is above all else an observant writer. The observation is equally good when it comes to the relationships – perhaps most brilliantly of Tess’s mother and father, but also of Tessa’s husband Pete, of her teenage children, of the well-individualised characters at the peace camp. There is not a whiff of stereotype anywhere. Even the TV makeover queen is deftly handled, silly but believable. And Simmonds (whose research is impeccable) also lobs in treats, such as that the now-ubiquitous absolutely was posh-child speak in the early 1980s. I had deep-sixed that in my brain.

The novel is also remarkable for the way it fuels itself with narrative lines. As the present and past intertwine, we bare led to speculate about several aspects of the future. What will become of Tessa and Pete’s marriage? What will happen to Tessa’s relationship with her daughter? What will become of her latest project (Tessa is constantly taking on new challenges)? How will the past reach forward and snag her (when it does, in reuniting her with one of the most testy Greenham women, everything is a brilliant surprise)? What is the real nature of the friendship at the camp with Rori (short for Aurora), the relationship that makes her have a powerful emotional flashback when glimpsing a girl of twenty, Rori’s age at the camp, at a swimming pool – the incident that triggers the unfolding of the story? Simmonds braids all these plot-strands together with panache.

The cover of the novel is an invitation to chick-lit readers, I think – the curly shower, the suggestion of wallpaper, the pastel shades; and I’m not sure that ‘Fallout’ works, as the pun on nuclear fallout doesn’t really work at the Greenham end. But it will be a great pity if readers give this a miss because of supposed genre. This is a fantastic novel – so sure of its ground, so astute in its understanding, so emotionally true, and all this with a light, deft, amusing touch. If this is chick-lit, or a women-only novel, then I am a hobbit. My favourite novelist is Liz Jensen, and structurally, this first novel (for that’s what it, unbelievably, is) is quite the equal of early Jensen. This is perhaps the first novel to feature Stevenage (!) but I think it deserves first-novel plaudits, and prizes, and above all, as many readers as hope to find themselves happy.


Poetry 2008 (uncut)

November 28, 2008

Space considerations led to my article today in The Independent on the best poetry of the year being cut: five poets were omitted. So here’s the full piece:

Choosing a baker’s dozen of the year’s poetry collections begs the question ‘What were you looking for?’ Answer: poems to make me look out at the world, and think, repeatedly, ‘I’ll never see it the same way.’ Good poetry takes the familiar, makes it strange, and, doing so, makes even the mundane memorable.

For magic, read Pauline Stainer’s Crossing the Snowline (Bloodaxe, £8.95). Stainer’s language has a frozen, exacting piety; she re-invents the world as myth, even religion: ‘the river/ writing its monograph/ on mosses’, ‘a daylight moon/ suspended on gimbals.’ Her bizarre takes on nature have the quality of polished gems. Equally magical, but madcap too, is Selima Hill’s The Hat (Bloodaxe, £7.95), a sequence as dark as Bunny, and using the same, elliptical glimpses and startling analogies. The Hat captures how a woman is crushed: ‘Look at those heavy bags of hers!/ They huddle at her feet like ducks and geese/ waiting dimly for their new home.’ Hill writes with instant, mock-flippant precision. Harder, but worth the work, is Peter Bennet’s The Glass Swarm (Flambard, £7.50), a selection of peculiar parables, eccentric but demanding legends – as if assembled by an English Scheherazade. The language grabs: ‘It is too late, with sunshine in my eyes,/ to care which insect air force is commencing/ a mass-attack of lullabies.’

The best poems strike up conversations. Try Sandra Tappenden’s Speed (Salt, £12.99, hardback), whose drollery persists, testing ideas, strolling along fantastic tangents: ‘Etiquette is a load of stupid nonsense;/ anyone can move into your dreams/ without making an appointment/ or even bothering to get dressed.’ Similarly, Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw (Carcanet, £9.95) looks around, half-suspiciously, funny or moody: ‘Locked in a jail of ribs, the passionate heart/ judders/ the way a cranked car used to do,/ the whole system/ suddenly coughing.’ Against these laconics, set cheeky Catherine Smith, whose Lip (Smith/Doorstop, £7.95) delights in the absurdity of love, sex, separation, and everyday erotica: ‘Send me your bed, but please, don’t change the sheets./ Pay two strong men to load it on a van,/ and drive it through the rain at one a.m./ I’ll be awake, I need to search for stains.’ Perfect put-downs; perfect pick-me-ups. The same applies to Kathryn Simmonds’ flint-hard whimsy in Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren, £7.99). Great images here (Jesus ‘transfigured’ as a contemporary ‘Dave’; elderly women dancing), and killer phrasing, as when trying to fix a broken TV: ‘With two hands on its shoulders/ I try rocking it to sense,/ like a priest conducting an exorcism/ gone badly wrong.’

Four gimlet-eyed, understated collections: Leontia Flynn’s Drives (Cape, £9), Allison McVety’s The Night Trotsky Came To Stay (Smith/Doorstop, £7.95), D.A. Prince’s Nearly the Happy Hour (HappenStance, £8), and Michael Laskey’s The Man Alone (Smith/Doorstop, £9.95). Flynn’s poems include recreations of the famous (Hitchcock, Fitzgerald, Bishop), tender personal elegies, and also real or imaginary journeys. Her poem ‘Airports’ nails them all: ‘Airports are their own peculiar weather./ Their lucid hallways ring like swimming pools./ … the planes, like a child’s mobile, hang at random.’ McVety manages the rare feat of trawling her family history, wittily shaping its stories, making her experiences ours: ‘On a side ward/ my father is trying his death for size./ It’s off-the-peg, but even so,/ consultants attend to the tailoring,/ consider a final tuck.’ Prince explores similar territory, but adds beautifully composed snapshots, as here, of cormorants: ‘a sandbar black with solid sound/ screaming a goal for the home team,/ the fans gone wild, winging their yah-yah-yah …’ Laskey is a meditative writer. Wry, curious, mischievous: his writing seizes on incidents and turns them quietly inside out, as at the end of ‘Lesson’, about having his wallet swiped – ‘Apparently it’s always happening/ with backpacks, but after the shock/ and the hassle, it’s the deftness/ I’m left with, how I didn’t feel a thing,/ how you need to keep practising.’ A mini-master-class in echo.

Earlier this year, I doubted any collection would match Ciaran Carson’s astonishing sequence For All We Know (Gallery Press, £10.95), in which a fugue of fourteen-line, fourteen-syllable, but six-beat sonnets conducts a mystery tour through love and political intrigue. It’s like Graham Greene crossed with a passionate Bach. But suddenly Carol Rumens’ Blind Spots (Seren, £8.99) arrives, her best work ever. Philosophical, playful, formal – umpteen forms expertly managed – free or experimental, Rumens opens with pieces inspired by Eugenio Montale, before exploring further her fusion of the personal and political. There is no word out of place – even in her delightful poem about allowing poets to wander off the subject – but my favourite is a sequence (‘Suite: Minus Ten’) about her deteriorating eyesight. ‘The smart in the eyes is grief-like;/ the urge to lie down on blank metal/ where the books that no-one borrowed/ lived their last years, and sleep,/ becomes almost uncontrollable.’ This collection will still be read decades from now: it must already be installed as a certain prize-winner.

Thirteen’s unlucky, so here’s a bonus track, as Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley would say, admitting he’s studied how music is marketed. His In Person (Bloodaxe, £12) is 2008’s must-have anthology – or rather, its two DVDs are, offering six hours with thirty poets (the anthology’s their script). From Adcock to Zepahaniah, 163 poems are filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce without flash, with fluffs, stumbles and noises off. Celebrating Bloodaxe’s thirtieth year, it introduces unfamiliar voices (in this country) like C.D.Wright and Naomi Shihab Nye. It makes you wonder if every collection should attach a DVD. And it captures terrific readings, most notably David Constantine’s ‘Common and Particular’, which you might reckon poem of the decade after seeing him speak it.