Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes: Setting the world on fire

Cover imageI’d heard good things about Fishnet, Kirstin Innes’ first novel, but hadn’t yet got around to reading it when Scabby Queen popped up in my Twitter timeline adorned with a puff from Janice Galloway whose The Trick Is to Keep Breathing and Jellyfish I loved. Innes’ second novel is the story of Clio Campbell, political firebrand and erstwhile rock star who took her own life just three days before her fifty-first birthday.

Born in 1967, Clio is the daughter of a charismatic folk singer and a tight-lipped, political activist mother. Malcolm and Eileen arrive in Malcolm’s home town, freshly married and ill-suited, with Eileen pregnant. It’s Eileen who earns the money while Malcolm pursues his dream, singing in local venues accompanied by his adoring friend Donald on fiddle. To no one’s surprise, Malcolm and Eileen don’t last long. Eileen raises Clio who hangs on her father’s rare visits until he skedaddles to the States. Clio grows into a gorgeous young woman, constantly in trouble and eventually chucked out of home in disgrace. By 1990, she’s on Top of the Pops displaying her politics to the world as she unbuttons her shirt to reveal a close-fitting T-shirt bearing an anti-poll tax slogan. Over the next three decades, Clio’s moment of glory will become enshrined in popular culture, the zenith of her career, but while her musical influence wanes her passion for justice shines brightly until she chooses the ultimate political act.

This long, sprawling novel is a patchwork of memories, press cuttings and testimonies which together form the story of Clio’s life. Through it, Innes explores the radical politics of fifty years, from Clio’s defiant anti-poll tax anthem to the growing awareness of the dangers of populism and social media, its central plank the scandal of undercover exploitation of female political activists and its effects. Clio flits in and out of characters’ lives, encouraging a young woman she meets in a squat and rescuing another at the Genoa G8 protest, kick-starting the career of an Asian rapper, telling her unhappy story to a woman to whom it’s all too familiar and turning up at the home of a friend who recognises her bipolarity when she needs to retreat. She’s a firecracker of a character full of contradictions – raucous yet vulnerable, self-righteous yet hypocritical, empathetic yet insensitive, beautiful, passionate and impossible not to admire or to be infuriated by. Given its structure, there’s a danger that Innes’ novel could have collapsed into incoherence but she manages it well drawing it to a close with Eileen’s version which takes us back to the start. Written with wit, humour and sharp observation, Scabby Queen is the antithesis of that pared back, tightly disciplined writing I so admire, but I loved it. I suspect Clio will be in my head for some time

4th Estate: London 2020 9780008342296 400 pages Hardback

12 thoughts on “Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes: Setting the world on fire”

  1. I have seen this all over Twitter this last week and for some off reason (the title maybe?) assumed it wouldn’t be for me. But your review makes it very appealing!

  2. I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of this author until her name came up as one of the recommendations in a Twitter thread about Scottish writers last week. (You may well have seen it as the original piece in the Times provoked a passionate response.) This sounds like an ambitious novel, executed with quite a degree of skill. The characterisation sounds excellent – highly memorable.

    1. I missed the Times piece but I’m glad Innes’ name was mentioned. I’d go so far as to call her choice of structure audacious but she proves herself more than capable of executing it. Narrowly missed a place on my Booker wishlist.

  3. I’d’ve been intrigued by the Galloway blurb too…but how fascinating that it seems as though the style/approach (being sprawly rather than polished) is so different from Galloway’s. That only intrigues me more.

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