You’ll barely have time to process the title of this debut novel before confronting its first sentence. We meet Janie Ryan, Kerry Hudson’s mouthy protagonist, at the moment of her birth, and let’s just say it’s a electrifying one.
With head-spinning rapidity we’re introduced to Janie’s equally mouthy mum, Iris, and Grandma — she of the mint-green nylon trousers — as well as Janie’s Uncle Frankie, who gives Iris a pink miniskirt and a bottle of vodka as going-home-from-the-hospital-after-giving-birth presents.
But it’s the ladies who steer this story. Meet the Ryans, a multigenerational family of Aberdeen, Scotland, women battling poverty, drug culture, and the vagaries of Thatcher’s Britain with their own instinctive weapons: “fishwives to the marrow, they were always ready to fight and knew the places that would cut the deepest.”
Soon after settling in at Grandma’s, the famous Ryan temper flares, and Janie and Iris move on to an endless stream of subsidized housing. The first of their homes is where the titular Tony turns up, the mean-eyed, aggressive, tattooed “Aberdonian King, or at least Duke, of thugs and drugs.”
Overnight, he becomes 2-year-old Janie’s terrifying father figure and she strains to please: “My limbs stretched, lost their baby fat, and I used the toilet like a good girl. All of a sudden, as though someone had snuck in at night and placed them on my tongue, I knew lots of words and how to put them together to hurt, be funny or angry. I thought I should be the main feature, my cleverness, but it was only the ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoon before the bloody film that became our day-to-day.”
The raw physicality of Janie’s reactions and perceptions drives the narrative with its palpable you-are-there sensation. The more Tony attacks Iris — “It didn’t matter what the reason was. If the toast burned or her trousers made her look fat, if she spent too much time ‘pandering’ to me or if she wore red” — the more Janie hides under the duvet “with an ever growing ball of shame lodged in my chest,” while “Ma let Tony’s shiny promises settle on her skin like armour against the next beating.”
Janie’s a sponge, absorbing expletives, anger, and her mother’s furious, erratic, manic love, but that same physicality is just as compelling during softer moments, when Iris tickles her or when Iris, Janie, and her younger sister, Tiny, curl up in bed together, “a set of Russian dolls, each protecting the other.”
At the age of 6, she discovers the joys of public libraries: “When I opened the books, and I could open as many as I liked because it cost us nothing, the pictures lay on my eyes like oil on water and the dancing letters settled on my tongue with the smell and the taste of black-jack sweeties . . . I was learning how stories could make me feel safe.”
Later, at school, the immediacy of her reactions comes into its own: “I was good at Drama. All you had to do was remember a feeling: being so scared that your blood turned icy (Tony, the Germans); being angry enough that your bones burned up and crumbled to ash (. . . Ma); loving someone enough to want to stretch your own skin over them to carry them safely inside you (Tiny, Ma, Uncle Frankie).”
Our resilient-vulnerable narrator makes her way through a peripatetic childhood, from grim Scottish housing projects to group homes in run-down English seaside towns, with a voice as riveting as it is honest. Foul-mouthed and feisty, with shoes held together by Blu-Tack and a belly mostly empty apart from large doses of spit and fire, Janie’s fierce protectiveness toward her mother and Tiny is, in a way, all she’s got — until it’s time for her to strike out on her own.
Wickedly, brilliantly, inescapably funny in spite of its often-horrific scenarios, Hudson’s debut is, by equal turns, startling, devastating, and exhilarating.Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.