I wade, tripping over boxes and piles of mildewing curtains, getting caught in cables, hooked on hat stands and assaulted by rutting ironing boards. I flounder over records, books, stained blankets, greasy collections of plastic bags, garden forks, antique mangles, a woman’s patent leather shoe and an unopened blender that also grates and peels. And cats, cats, cats. (1)
Biba Morel’s care agency speciality is matching geriatric hell-raisers with minimum-waged staff. And old Cathal Flood is certainly a hell-raiser; when he runs his latest carer off the property (a falling-down Gothic crap heap) with a hurling stick, Biba scrapes the bottom of the barrel to dredge up Maud Drennan.
There’s trauma in Maud’s past that haunts her inner life, but she knows how to stand up for herself, and she gradually gets the upper hand over Cathal. Spooky things begin to happen: the old house is full of troubling spirits and manifestations centred on the mysterious death of Cathal’s wife twenty years before, a lost girl, and a daughter nobody speaks of. With the not-always-helpful advice of various saints who turn up every now and then, shimmering dimly along the street, sitting on the dustbin or stretched out on the hearthrug, she sets herself to find out what happened to Mary Flood and Maggie Deane.
It’s a great read, a magical realist comedy with a mystery thrown in, highly imaginative, and strong on character and voice. Sometimes Jess Kidd doesn’t seem to know where to take these larger-than-life characters; the resolution is a bit thin, but there’s a lot of fun in the journey. I particularly liked Maud’s visit to a psychic called Doreen:
Her tone is brisk, efficient, like that of an auctioneer: ‘I have a tall man, brown skin, a Cypriot I think, with a bowel obstruction. Can anyone take this?’ Her hand raises an imaginary gavel.
The audience looks glazed: no one wants to bid for the Cypriot.
Doreen closes her eyes and nods again a little impatiently. ‘He suffered gastrically, very badly.’ She opens her eyes and grabs hold of her large stomach, cradling it in her arms. She points towards the back of the room. ‘He wants to talk with someone over there. Can anyone take this? I’m hearing the name Tony or Anthony.’
A woman raises her hand hesitantly. ‘My postman, he was a Tony,’ she suggests. ‘But he was from Blackburn.’
‘But he liked a holiday? He was a sun worshipper?’
The woman ponders. ‘He might have been. I didn’t know him all that well.’ 260
This is NOT Jess Kidd’s first book, as I said in the first version of this post. Gert 2 tells me her first book is called Himself. I’ll be reading it asap.