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Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Review: Yrsa Daley-Ward, The Terrible




I read this book at one sitting (rare) and had no real quibbles (also rare). True, it’s not quite as big a read as its 208 pages might suggest - that’s because there is a lot of white space. I’m a fan of white space and don’t mind buying blank pages.

Daley-Ward chronicles a troubled (sometimes traumatic, sometimes chaotic)  Northern England black girl childhood and adolescence in deft, word-sparing sketches which sufficiently evoke character, milieu and feeling to make any more plodding framing (“I was born in … my mother …. my father ….) unnecessary. At no point did I feel lost in what are often quite complex relationships - her mother has three children by three men, for example. This suggests to me that Daley-Ward has deployed a lot of craft skill in shaping her material and a lot of thought in keeping a firm hold on a main narrative thread. She knows what she is doing and it isn’t splurging. (The question whether some of it is poetry rather than prose or vice versa does not interest me, though I see that other reviewers discuss the question).

Daley-Ward sustains that thread from birth to eighteen, often using her precise age as an anchor point. This takes her to page 107 at which point I suspect many writers would have stopped and said, That’s it; done my childhood. At no point did I feel she was using her prose to illustrate some general truth, nor did it feel as if she was writing with the baleful gaze of hindsight and the disapproval of adult judgement. No one really gets hit over the head with an imported adjective; Daley-Ward simply tries to express how she felt about her life and people in her life, sometimes in everyday terms, sometimes more poetically. Both ways, she carries the reader (this reader) along with her.

The bold decision was to continue beyond the age of eighteen and into the fairly recent past (she was born in 1989 so still not thirty when this book was published in 2018). This continuation is written very frankly (to her credit) and my quibble would be to say that when your life is in a messy period it’s hard to give it much narrative shape; there is just a succession of things which happen. You hook up with this person and then move on to the next; you drink and then you take drugs and back round again; you do sex work and then modelling or vice versa. And you live to tell the tale ( those who don’t live simply don’t tell their tale).

The book was awarded the PEN Ackerley prize in 2019, a prize which is given to a British literary autobiography published in the previous year - and with quite a bit of emphasis on the literary; ghost written celebrity memoirs don’t qualify for consideration. Though I haven’t read the other two shortlisted autobiographies, I think this one clearly meets the standard expected for that prize. It sits comfortably alongside Amy Liptrot's The Outrun which won  in 2016 and which also has religious fundamentalism and alcohol as prominent themes. The two books could be read together in a book group; Liptrot is white, grew up in Orkney and was in her early thirties when she wrote her book.

My own memoir I Have Done This In Secret was called in by the judges for the same longlist of twenty six from which Daley-Ward emerged the winner and I would of course be very happy if you read that memoir too. But do read this one first. 

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