Monday, 3 October 2011
Book Review: "Hurry Up And Wait" by Isabel Ashdown
"In her eargerly anticipated second novel, Mail on Sunday Novel Competition winner Isabel Ashdown explored the treacherous territory of adolescent friendships and traces the repercussions of a dangerous relationship across the decades. It's been more than 20 years since Sarah Ribbons last set foot inside her old high school, a crumbling, Victorian-built comprehensive on the south coast of England. Now, as she prepares for her school reunion, 39-year-old Sarah has to face up to the truth of what really happened back in the summer of 1986..."
The painful vulnerability of an isolated teenage girl in the 1980s is here brought to life in light, simple strokes which hide a deeper shadow whose consequences are seen in the "2010" chapters.
There are huge elements of fun in this story: the various nods to life in the eighties: lipstick, music, fashion and hairstyles set the period of the work brilliantly; the echoing refrain of "Sunday Girl" had me walking round the house singing for days after I had finished reading. Along with the breathless discos and bright youth club Ashdown deftly weaves in the hilarity of school life: turning in comedy homework safe in the knowledge it will never be read; scrawling graffiti in the toilet cubicles; bitchy comments between "friends" and barbed retorts to teachers: the sharp detail breezed away the cobwebs to my own schooldays.
By turns touching and funny, Ashdown expertly depicts life in the two-faced world of teenage girls which will resonate with women regardless of the decade in which they went to school. The character of Kate is vivid and poisonous: the queen bee who haunts school toilets across the country, and echoes through time. I loved Kate. Bitchy, cruel, underhand and selfish she sends ripples of unease and unhappiness through her classmates. Her duplicitous nature remains largely unchallenged during her school days, and backed up by her faithful sidekick Tina she causes willful damage to her classmates.
Jason, Kate's father, is a grown up version of his daughter. He too is vain, selfish and self-involved, using the people around him for his own ends. He and Kate are the cause of much of the heartache in the novel.
I was fascinated by Sarah's isolation: In her friendship with Tina and Kate it is always Sarah who is given the cold shoulder; her father is loving but does not spend time with her; she has no mother; she patiently submits to bullying at work. Sarah's story is terribly sad, but although the events are shocking, I found the way in which Sarah handles them to be infinitely more tragic: Her father's illness; Dante's betrayal; her issues with Jase; the bullying at work; the final tragic revelation; Sarah attempts to deal with all of her trials herself, not asking for any help. The aching loneliness of the final chapter is almost suffocating. Even when a confession from Tina late in the novel offers her a kindred spirit in whom to confide, Sarah remains silent and returns instead to the scene of her solitary grief.
John batters his way through Sarah's defenses, and forces her to accept his help whether she wants it or not, we must believe to their mutual benefit. His steadiness and friendship through the story stand as a welcome relief to the double-dealing of characters such as Dante and Kate.
The final section shows that some characters have changed over time, while others have not. Sarah's final act of accepting help from John lets her cast off the ghosts of her youth, and the novel ends on a life-affirming note.
In its themes of isolation, loneliness, selfishness, loss and misplaced trust "Hurry Up and Wait" is unsurpassed. The way in which past grievances are aired and resolved at the school reunion is both funny and sad, and the balance between the novel's lighter and more sinister aspects is perfect.
Isabel Ashdown has created with great skill a coming-of-age story with characters and scenarios to which we can all relate, and whose secrets and shadows remain skilfully just on the edge of sight, until called to spill out in front of the DJ box in the final section.