The blurb on the back of Isabel Ashdown’s second novel (Hurry Up and Wait from Myriad Editions) suggests it’s about a school reunion, but don’t be deceived. This is a novel about school days, or more precisely how it was to be fifteen in 1985.
Now it so happens that the mid-eighties somehow passed me by (something to do with child-birth and potty training) but even if the years between Bananarama and Queen are my cultural blind-spot, it turns out that being fifteen is pretty much the same in any decade: friends are fickle, the dark secret of sex is ever present, nerdy teachers and exam revision present just so much nuisance value alongside the more pressing issues of clothes, make-up and boys.
In this teenage landscape, Sarah, living alone with her fogeyish Dad, finds it harder than most to fit in, but throws in her lot with two mismatched friends, both just on the right side of cool, who idolise her one day and ridicule her the next. With the signals given out by grown-ups (her secretive father, bitchy Saturday colleagues, the warring parents of friends) equally confusing, Isabel Ashdown shows us the delicate balancing act required to survive the teenage experience, and Sarah’s downfall, when it comes, is both dramatic and entirely believable.
The school reunion, a grisly event taking place twenty years later, is used to frame the narrative and make us wait a bit longer to find out what really happened on Sarah’s school signing out day. As such it does add suspense, but there’s also some awkwardness in the skipping forward and back so close to the end, and I was left feeling I wanted less of the drunken high-jinks on the night and more of that fifteen year gap filled in. Nor did I think that the opening scene, with steady John and the grown-up Sarah, gave the book anything like the kick-start it could have had. In fact I think that the narrative would have worked just as well chronologically, but what the time-frame does do is to give the book a very clear adult stamp, perhaps a useful indication of genre and market.
But these are the quibbles of a writer, and this book is a very enjoyable and engaging read where those who lived the eighties to the full will find lots to entertain them and people like me will realise they were there, somewhere, after all.
Meanwhile I’m off to find a copy of Glasshopper, Isabel Ashdown’s prize-winning first novel, and to embark on a journey to another fascinating decade.