Judy Blume, whose In the Unlikely Event is out now. Photo: LINDA NYLIND/THE GUARDIAN
Show Hide image

Even as an adult, reading Judy Blume feels like being admitted into a secret club

In the Unlikely Event is Blume's first novel for adults since 1998. If only grown-up fiction learned from teen writing more often.

In the Unlikely Event
Judy Blume
Picador, 402pp, £16.99

Judy Blume’s latest novel for adults – her first since Summer Sisters in 1998 – starts with the main character, Miri, taking her seat on an aeroplane and being shuttled back into her past. It’s 1987 and she’s rehearsing a reading as she flies: “But we’re still part of a secret club,/One we’d never willingly join,/With members who have nothing in common except a time and a place,” runs her poem, written for the 35th anniversary of a terrible year for her home town of Elizabeth. In 1952, three planes fell out the sky over New Jersey – not just in the novel but in real life. Blume grew up in Elizabeth. Born in 1938, she is the same age as Miri and, like her, Jewish. Real names, objects and snippets of contemporary reports slip through the fiction, the actual bound to the invented by the invisible work of a practised darning needle.

In the Unlikely Event is a homecoming of sorts for Blume – and it will be for many readers as well. Long before Miri reaches her destination, I have been slingshot into my own history. Skimming down the “Also by this author” list at the front of the book, my eye snags on Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great; Blubber – title after title that I know as intimately as school-taught hymns. And then I am not sitting on my grown-up sofa any more but instead can feel the coarse, short pile of municipal carpet. I am small and hunched up by the shelves in Oakham Library, drawing down the plastic-sleeved paperbacks and swallowing the words as quickly as I can.

Perhaps adolescence is another club that no one would willingly join. But every girl since 1970 who has had to go through that rough induction into spots and blood and crushes and sudden flesh (or the failure of flesh to show up where it’s supposed to) has been able to join the fellowship of Blume readers. With her mix of frankness, clarity and perfect kindness, Blume’s fiction for teens offers a map of incipient adulthood. She never undermines the seriousness of her characters’ experiences, though her narration always has the leavening good sense acquired through time. It’s Not the End of the World, as one of her titles has it. She’s the aunt you could tell everything to, except there’s no need because she already knows exactly what you’re going through and has described it perfectly.

In the Unlikely Event has all of these fine qualities. It’s distinguished from her work for young adults by being a little freer with the curses (though we’re talking a handful of judicious F-bomb detonations, not cascades of profanity), a little more explicit with the sex, a fair bit longer – and by using that extra space to say more about the adult characters, although the novel is still dominated by Miri’s sharp-eyed teenage viewpoint. That’s all the difference there is and that is no insult. It would be better by far if the trade paths of influence between young adult and adult fiction worked this way more often, with the grown-up stuff learning warmth from the junior genre, rather than everyone mistaking sadism for seriousness.

Instead, narrative compassion thrives here. Ultimately what bonds the characters isn’t just the trauma of disaster, although that supplies the structure and impetus of the novel. Their connections are forged from the ordinary order of devastations – the heartache of people maturing in different directions and forever-friendships ­splitting, the heart-bursting experience of a first kiss, the adult desire that smashes through all legal bonds and becomes a pragmatically delivered announcement over a family dinner in a pizzeria. All are captured keenly by Blume, who has a loving curator’s eye for people.

She’s a collector of things, too. Tenderly archived within the novel are sweetheart necklines, organza overskirts, pop songs that just happen to be playing when they are most meaningful, yellow Cadillacs and plates of chicken à la king – the stuff of the 1950s.

The way the story is told serves its emotional purpose well. The novel shifts through more than a dozen different narrators, all with their own impeded view of each other and of themselves. Sometimes, the sheer number of lives entwined under the penumbra of the air disasters is almost overwhelming and I occasionally caught myself counting back clumsily on my fingers: this character works with that character who shares this surname with the person we met in the underwear shop earlier. But Blume is too gifted and too experienced for these moments to last long or damage the book. Instead, they serve as small reminders of everyone’s partiality. The characters’ various blind spots become one more thing they have in common.

One particularly sweet theme that runs through the novel is the passing on of fiction from adults to adolescents: a copy of The Catcher in the Rye changes hands and there is a brief but lovely cameo for The Member of the Wedding, Carson ­McCullers’s humid and antsy evocation of a teenage tomboy’s coming of age, published in 1946. One suspects that these were among the novels that helped to map the world for Blume when she was in her teens and their relay through the generations underscores the community that readers have: even our most private, lonely and terrible moments have been shared by someone before us. Books – and Blume’s in particular – are a secret club that we opt into happily.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Show Hide image

Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition