Monday, 15 September 2014

A Kettle of Fish by Ali Bacon

I’ve always thought that there were rather too many ‘coming of age’ stories: novels, short stories, plays and even films, about the trials and tribulations of young men, and not nearly enough focusing on the fascinating rites of passage that change a girl into a young woman. There are a few notable exceptions of course – there always are - but in the same way that I love Scandinavian crime fiction with recognisable and believable female characters, I fell upon this novel with a little frisson of happy recognition: a novel about real women! The men are real too, of course - real and vividly drawn. But it’s such a relief to read a novel where the focus is squarely on a central female protagonist and to find that she's completely believable.

The narrator of this novel is Ailsa Robertson. She lives in a smallish Scottish town, in Fife, to be precise, she has just left school, she has plans to move to Edinburgh - and she is facing a challenging family situation, perhaps more challenging than that facing most young adults at this time of their lives. Ailsa’s mother is a vulnerable woman who has had a string of health problems. Her father is absent for mysterious reasons which have haunted Ailsa’s childhood. She remembers him with love, as a good, caring father, but he left when she was only six years old. Unravelling the mystery of why he left and what really happened is a key part of the story, as is the relationship between mother and daughter, between father and daughter, and the getting of wisdom, the hurdles, the joys and sorrows involved in setting out on adult life and relationships in the wide world beyond home.

There is so much to like about this book – not least the narrator who is so real that she leaps off the page. I know the area Ali Bacon is writing about and her sense of place, her evocation of it, is spot on. You can practically smell the sea air. And when later the story moves to Edinburgh, that too emerges strong and true. I’ve worked in a small Edinburgh art gallery myself – and once again, the novelist gets this absolutely right. The characters are vividly drawn and true, not least because the dialogue is excellent, realistic, well handled - well 'heard'. People are always asking me how to write realistic dialogue and I find myself telling them that it's at once easy and difficult. You have to listen to the way people speak and you have to know your characters so well that you can 'hear' them talking in your head. But it's very difficult to teach anyone how to do this. Ali Bacon makes it seem effortless.

This is a very grown-up book: sexy and sensual in all kinds of ways. It doesn’t pull its punches, it’s hard edged, as why wouldn’t it be, dealing with the east coast of Scotland? But it’s also poetic in the polished spareness of its prose and thoroughly entertaining in the unique voice of the narrator.

Perhaps most important of all, though, this is a good read, a very good story, pulling you onwards, so that you want to keep reading. And that’s a gift.
I'm very much looking forward to this writer’s next novel.

Reviewed by Catherine Czerkawska

A Kettle of Fish is available on Kindle in the UK here and in the US Kindle Store.  It is also available in paperback.