I’m pleased to report that my reading mojo is well and truly back: first, Never Mind Miss Fox then The Following Girls dipping into Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea in between. Indeed, Louise Levene’s new novel was such an unadulterated treat that it’s hard not to gush about it. Set in the ‘70s it’s a sharp, very funny satire on adolescent schoolgirl life and like all good satire it has a dark edge to it.
The novel opens with Amanda Baker, one of the Four Mandies – aka Baker, Bunty, Stottie and Queenie – enjoying a crafty fag while scrutinising the graffiti adorning the toilet wall of the private girls’ school she attends. The Mandies are the bad girls of the fifth form, skiving sports in favour of bitching about their teachers, thumbing The Sensuous Female and expressing their exasperation at the seemingly ever-present Julia, the supposedly sporty prefect who does, indeed, turn out to be Baker’s nemesis. Chief rebel, Baker is the daughter of a mother who left when she was three, destined for the Bahamas, and a miserable father who has somehow persuaded Spam, as Baker christens her stepmother, to be his domestic skivvy despite her full-time job which may well be the equal of his.
The Following Girls is stuffed full of pitch-perfect period detail: ‘It was always busy in Mrs Baker’s kitchen, even when there was no one in it’ describes to a T the clashing horror of patterns that was the ‘70s. There are references which will have women of a certain age and education both squirming and cackling in recognition – remember uniform inspection, kneeling on the floor to ensure that the hem of your skirt was only an inch above it? Baker fires acerbic one-liners like scatter shot but beneath her smartarse exterior lies a slurry of adolescent insecurity exacerbated by her carping, moaning father and her well-meaning but emotionally awkward stepmother. It’s a very funny novel which had me smirking like a teenager for much of it – the teachers’ internal monologues are a particular joy – but Levene’s sharpest skill is her ability to signal the pain beneath Baker’s witty rejoinders. I’m already looking forward to rereading it.
There, not too gushy I hope. Have you read anything that has taken you back to your adolescence, painful or otherwise? May have to show your age, I’m afraid, but don’t let that stop you.