There are some books which just don’t put a foot wrong – and this is one of them. The tale of ten-year-old Robyn, growing up on an estate in Liverpool in the late Seventies, is one which is simply and brilliantly narrated by Robyn herself. Morgan manages the difficult trick of getting a child’s voice just right – she struggles to identify her feelings properly at times: ‘now the weather’s dry there’s a new smell in the air that makes my skin fizz, makes everything feel wrong and swollen on the inside.’ Robyn is by turns wilful, desperate, and a complete treasure of a character.
Morgan doesn’t pull her punches – Robyn’s childhood is one of deprivation, both economically and emotionally, with parents who are, at best, unreliable. Her father’s propensity for drunken violence simmers away and adds an increasing tension to Robyn’s already precarious existence. We’re told at the beginning that ‘when they first sent me out to steal I was ten years old.’ The period detail is done with a deft hand – ‘her mum says we have to play in the front because the bin men are on strike and it stinks in the yard’- and Robyn’s descriptions of the things she owns, covets, or steals, make up a familiar world for those readers alive in the Seventies. The casual cruelties of teachers remind us of a world which has changed, but is still recognisable.
One of the few redeeming features of Robyn’s childhood is her Nan. Morgan’s writing makes this character so easy to ‘see’ that I dreamt of my own grandmother the night I finished reading this.
‘She is holding a cup in one hand, a pinny in the other. Her legs are half-past five on a clock. You notice it most when she stands up straight, against her stick. She blames the doctors.’
Nan provides the warmth and support Robyn so desperately lacks elsewhere, even if her own background means she is already outpaced by her granddaughter. I loved the scenes where Robyn reads Anne of Green Gables to her, knowing that Nan struggles to read herself. However, we’re frequently reminded how alone Robyn is, marked out by her poverty and by her father’s unpredictable behaviour.
This is far from a misery narrative, though – Robyn’s perception of the challenges of growing up, and her growing sense of how she might make something of her world is utterly moving and uplifting. She’s bright and she can see ways out. She is a character I cheered for, and I was completely caught up by her story. As I said at the start, Morgan doesn’t put a foot wrong, and this is a book which will feature in my final Top Ten at the end of the year. Just brilliant.