REVIEW by Megan Welsh

NWR Issue 103

Word on the Street

by Romy Wood

Romy Wood set her first novel, Bamboo Grove (2010), in Bangkok, but Word on the Street, her second, comes closer to home, playing out in the streets of Cardiff. Seeming to evoke Wood’s own experiences working in homeless shelters and in mental health, the novel relies on its doggedly determined and persistently grotty Everywoman, Shona, to tell of a plague rumbling through the city. Fear of the disease – called ‘Tramp Flu’ after it first takes roots among Cardiff’s homeless population – quickly overwhelms common sense, and because the flu itself is not contained by class or income-bracket, Wood’s sharpest satire comes as the affluent, the housed, and the beautiful fall ill.

An unlikely soldier on the front-lines of flu-fighting, Shona is delightfully disgusting, with a curmudgeonly but kind heart: ‘It’s a shame people correlate niceness with animal-loving,’ she says, early on, ‘because I really can’t stand dogs or cats.’ Covered in pizza grease, popping zits and scratching her crotch in public, she dares us to dislike her, but how could we? Shona – stomping through the house crushing crane-flies with a wad of paper, pining after a younger male journalist, and out of a job after the shelter she manages is burnt down by a resident lighting his farts – is us. Earnest and disastrous, she clatters toward the truth of ‘Tramp Flu’ through a succession of missed connections and misunderstandings, blind to infidelities, bickering with her grandmother, and estranged from her mother (who the novel suggests is trans*).

Wood experiments with varying forms, allowing Shona to narrate from the future, where she is imprisoned for an unknown crime, but also to relate her experiences through a prison life-writing course, including letters and re-imagined memories. Says Shona’s instructor, Carol, ‘Life Writing doesn’t have to be absolutely true… What matters is the story that you want to tell,’ and the story Wood wants to tell is one rich with aphorisms and grumpy observations, from bemoaning people who ‘keep quiet’ about their birthdays ‘until it’s too late’ to insisting that she can’t be ‘the only person who hates that dead week between Christmas and New Year.’ Such dry humour is recognisable and relatable throughout: ‘If I had a fag in my hand I’d chuck it on the ground and stamp on it,’ writes Shona in an unsent letter to her mother, Benny. ‘For emphasis and because cigarette butts are a great way to displace emotions you’re not prepared to admit to.’

The more we learn of her, the more we see how often she has been unwillingly present on the fringes of other people’s crises. As a bullied teenager, she accidentally mistakes her father’s stroke for a nap, leaving him unattended overnight; as an adult, the flu’s first recorded death is a man from her shelter and later still, a misguided attempt to help a friend mourn his dead dog accidentally spurs a flu-panicked cull of domestic animals. Seeing her assailed on every side, then, it’s a pleasure to see her commit to ending the epidemic, shifting from petulant sideliner to social crusader, clumsy and unwashed as she may be.

The novel’s odd notes, though, are struck in some of Wood’s terminology. In a novel that so satirically and powerfully highlights the power of words to bias both personal opinion and public health – ‘“Don’t say tramps,” Shona tells her grandmother, advocating for the people she works with, “[t]ramps are characters in children’s stories”’ – it can sting to see the prison ward stocked with a ‘Gypsy’ woman who ‘whispers, “I tell your fortune?”’ and to see Shona and her grandmother deride and misgender Benny, whose apparent trans* identity seems to be played off as attention-seeking.

Megan Welsh studies creative writing at the University of St Andrews.


previous review: Drysalter
next review: Hatchet Job


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