REVIEW by Ellen Bell

NWR Issue r8

Sitting Ducks

by Lisa Blower

Winning the Guardian Short Story Competition in 2009, Lisa Blower went on to be shortlisted in 2013 for the BBC Short Story Award and achieve Highly Commended in the 2015 Bridport Prize. Blower’s short fiction has featured in New Welsh Review and on Radio 4. New Welsh Review broadcast an interview with her in spring 2014. A lecturer in Creative Writing, Blower is the 2016 Writer-in-Residence at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery. Sitting Ducks is her first novel.

*

8.20pm on a Sunday night and I’m watching 'The Antiques Roadshow'. The camera is zooming in on a black ceramic bust of the god Mercury. It’s actually basalt, explains the expert, a kind of black stoneware. It was my grandmother’s, says a woman’s voice. I come from the Potteries and when I was a child everyone had bits of Wedgewood in their houses, though they were most probably seconds.

Set in Stoke, the heart of the Potteries, Lisa Blower’s novel Sitting Ducks is a hard-hitting tale of a tightknit, city community flailing from the loss of its industry, identity and pride. Essentially an attack on Tory policy, first Thatcher’s, then Cameron’s, its narrative takes place within the four day period running up to, and just after, the General Election of May 2010. A story of unachievable aspiration that is epitomised by its main character, diminutive, long-term unemployed, illiterate Josiah ‘Totty’ Minton’s dream ‘of a three-bedroom semi with bay windows, fully fitted carpets and enough of a garden to stretch his legs.’

Home, embodied as it is in 13 Bennett Road, Totty’s mother Constance Minton’s two-up-two-down council house, and the only one remaining, represents, like the ‘milk-bottle kilns’ of the Stoke skyline, the last stalwart of the old regime. Coerced by its sale into squatting, Sitting Ducks details her fight (the chapters are quaintly referred to as ‘rounds’) to keep it from being razed to the ground by its owner, the bespoke-suit-wearing Malcolm Gandy, landlord and property developer.

Clearly the ‘enemy within’, Gandy, like Roy Dingwall, the Labour Councillor who defects at the last minute to the Conservative party, an act that confuses Constance and his other constituents into ‘voting blue’, reflects the Thatcherite individualistic, no-such-thing-as-society, get-on-yer-bike ideology. ‘We all started out the same way,’ says Gandy. ‘Pits, pots, we’ve all had the same chances.’ Having amassed over eighty per-cent of the city’s housing stock, Gandy, ruthless, avaricious and amoral is this community’s only real survivor.

A latter-day Jimmy ‘Yosser’ Hughes, wayward antihero of Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 television drama Boys from the Blackstuff, with a similar ‘gizza job’ intoning, a toolbox chained to his wrist, Totty is falling apart. Clearly a metaphor for the breaking up of the pottery industry (those ‘smouldering stacks given over to slurry and slag’), destruction, physical, mental and ideological, is at the core of this novel. There is domestic abuse, child abandonment, theft, adultery, murder and death. Eggs are smashed, plates shattered, walls kicked down and houses razed to rubble.

Sitting Ducks is a fast paced novel riven with a dark, sardonic humour. Staffordshire born and bred, Blower, evidently knowing her characters, draws them with empathy, compassion and insight. The language is raucous, rich and chock-full of mischievous associations. Her choice of names, such as Lux Faithful, Sheena Liquorice, Josiah ‘Totty’ Minton and Frank Blatch, is a particular delight. Countered by odd, somewhat playful, experiments in layout (there are illustrations of flipcharts, a questionnaire about what home really means and a page of text formed into a shape of an egg), Blower’s is a dystopic vision. Even the kids, symbolic as they are of the future, are tainted, ‘swindled’ into a premature adulthood they don’t deserve.

No doubt a catharsis for its writer, this novel, with its cover image of a man, eyes squeezed shut and neck muscles straining, and subtitle ‘If you’re not angry, you’re not listening’, is plainly one with serious political intent. Partisan without being preachy, Sitting Ducks both entertains and engages. A genuine pleasure to read.


Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in Aberystwyth.




       


previous review: The Tradition: A New History of Welsh Art 1400–1990
next review: From the Horse’s Mouth



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