A defining feature of 2016 has been the quality of debut fiction on offer. As November hoves into view people start to enquire as to your favourite books of the year and many of mine have been written by first time authors, something which bodes well for the future as well as making for an exciting present.
The time for full disclosure of such lists is not yet with us, but I can all but guarantee that Deborah Andrews’ debut Walking The Lights will feature. Set in mid-’90s Glasgow, this was always a novel I was going to have at least an affinity with, but what began as a trip in personal nostalgia with regard to time and place quickly moved to become something more profound and affecting.
The central character, Maddie, is a young actor who, as with many who choose that life, is defined by the well-worn euphemism ‘struggling’. The problem is, she is struggling more than most. She is slowly coming round to the realisation that all those criticisms of her boyfriend Mike from family and friends may not be a result of jealousy or lack of understanding after all. She feels ostracised from her immediate family because of the very real threat of violence from her step-father Rab, and the most important consideration the majority of the time is where the next joint is coming from – and it’s not from a meat raffle in The Halt Bar. As the book opens, in the Autumn of 1996, it looks as though things can only get better, but, as with all the best fiction, nothing is so straightforward. We’ve a dramatic arc to negotiate first.
Anyone familiar with Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film Withnail & I will recognise Andrews’ depiction of the hand-to-mouth existence of the unemployed actor, and the gallows humour which, out of necessity, goes with it. The scenes where Maddie is part of a murder/mystery weekend are particularly memorable, featuring a host of grotesque characters whom even Uncle Monty might refuse to entertain.
But such jobs are a necessity and keep alive the dream of a life in acting. Maddie’s reality is that her life is a unsustainable mix of deprivation and excess, one necessarily lived in the short-term. Money is earned in bursts and spent in a similar manner, and the future is a problem for other people. But time is passing, made more clear by the countdown to the termination of a pawnbroker’s contract. If ever there was a warning about the perils of putting your daughter on the stage, this is it. But there is still hope, even when everything seems hopeless.
Maddie and her closest friends’ dream of staging The Tempest offers her hope, and there are echoes of that play throughout the novel, particularly when Maddie and fellow actor Roger go camping on a remote and stormy island. It is a pivotal point in proceedings, and seems to mark a change in Maddie as she awakes from a dark night of the soul to have greater perspective than was previously the case, and renewed purpose. Or, to put it another way, she has slept well.
As evocative of ’90s Britain as Mike Leigh’s Naked or an album by Pulp, and with the dark wit of both, Walking the Lights uses specifics to examine universal themes of family, friendship, self-worth and self-respect, and how all of these are connected in the most complicated manner. It is rare to see this relationship written about with such insight.
This is in no small part down to the directness of Andrews’ prose which allows the story to unfold with a greater resonance and impact than may otherwise have been the case. I think her background in the theatre shows as her writing is sharp and tight, concisely edited, which has the effect of explaining events without fuss, similar to the work of Zoe Strachan and Nina de la Mer. The dialogue between characters feels real for similar reasons – conversation not obfuscation, and other writers would do well to take note.
I started reading Walking The Lights enjoying revisiting the Glasgow I knew then. After I had finished I was thinking about matters more personal, and people rather than place. This is what raises this novel above most others – the way it makes you face your own past. It demands honesty from its readers as that is what is being offered by the author. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you might just learn something about yourself.
Here’s the audio version of this review…