Nadine Dorries' debut novel, The Four Streets.
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Begorrah! Nadine Dorries’ The Four Streets is a bad novel, riddled with Shamrockese

After her remarkable flights from fact in her statements on abortion, it's disappointing to find that Dorries is just not very good at making things up.

"Whoi am Oi to be reiding the Nadoine Doirries noivel?" I asked me mammy when the commission came through. "Is is because Oi have disploised the Hoily Foither in some woi?" "No darling, don't be silly, it's because you're a journalist," said my mother. "And stop talking like that, you're no more a Plain Person of Ireland than the MP for Mid Bedfordshire is." Fortunately, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire has at least a dim and remote grasp of her limitations, because she doesn't try to write the whole of The Four Streets – her debut novel, and may it long remain blessed in its singularity – in the tongue of her poor-but-honest, devout-yet-practical, low-but-proud cast of net-curtain bleaching Irish Catholic housewives and their Guinness drinking docker husbands in 1950s Liverpool.

There are lines of luminous green dialogue, of course. Lines like: "Jaysus, would yer so believe it not?" and, "That'll be grand for the boxty bread." But happily, Dorries generally restricts herself to telling rather than showing what her characters are thinking and doing, so we are spared too much of the shamrockese. For example, when the villainess of the piece, "haughty stuck up Protestant bitch" Alice, first appears, she is smiling secretly to herself over a funeral. This is because she is evil.

Other ways in which we know that Alice is evil include being told that she is evilly plotting to beguile unfortunate widower Jerry, the fact that she doesn't want or like children, and the fact that she procures her own abortifacient from the chemists. Poor Jerry, not only tricked into having sex with a woman he doesn't like, but also forced to listen to "the sound of his would-be babies flushed down a tube". Well, not exactly sex: when he takes Alice roughly over the kitchen table, it is with such fury that "if Alice hadn't deliberately engineered this, his lovemaking would have bordered on rape". Fans of Hansard may here recall Dorries' claims that compulsory abstinence education for girls would prevent sexual violence.

Dorries made her name in parliament trying to make it more difficult for women to decide what to do with their own uteruses, but it's not that she would judge her characters for controlling their fertility. It's just that there's a right way and a wrong way in The Four Streets, and the wrong way is anything involving a chemist and the right way is highly mysterious. The deceased woman whom Alice is trying to replace knew the right way: the lovely Bernadette, Queen of Hearts of the Four Streets, "amazed them all with her ability to control her reproductive organs".

Dorries does not begrudge her heroine that remarkable power of will over womb, and although it is necessary for Bernadette to die in a tragic childbearing accident as she delivers her sole infant in hospital, that doesn't stop the inhabitants of the Four Streets reminiscing unrelentingly about Bernadette's angelic qualities. Nevertheless, the good Catholics do all appear to quietly absorb the reminder that perpetual pregnancy punctuated by squirting a kid onto the kitchen floor every nine months is the healthiest state for the Irish immigrant housewife, as no one in the novel tries their luck with such modern notions afterwards.

There are second chances for Dorries' characters, though. Bernadette gets to become the best dead mum the world has ever seen when she returns as poltermammy, fortuitously materialising whenever it is too late for her interventions to prevent something bad from happening, but just when a sweep of her "untameable" red hair will have maximum pathetic effect. (It really is extraordinary hair. When we first meet her, we watch her "do battle with her hair, which the wind had mischievously taken hold of and, lock by lock, teased out from under her black knitted beret". Less a hairstyle, more a Lovecraftian horror with its own self-directed will, it is perhaps only Bernadette's tragic passing that prevents this auburn terror from gaining full sentience and stalking vengefully through the Four Streets.)

Even Proddie bitch Alice finds absolution of a sort, Valiumed up to the eyeballs thanks to the tender conspiracies of her mother-in-law and GP. "The cuckoo in the nest had been put firmly in her place," says the satisfied narrator, and so we must believe there is hope in sedatives not only for Alice but also for all Protestants, given that she is their only representative in the book. But Dorries is not afraid to discuss the abuses of Catholicism. In fact, any expectations her publisher had of bulk orders from the Vatican must die in the person of Father James.

Like Alice, Father James is a very bad person and we know he is bad because we are told he is bad. Somehow, the families of the Four Streets fail to notice the manifest signs of evil that are narrated to us – but then, when your narrator speaks in a mix of inexplicable imagery (a child watches a strand of hair move around like "an overlarge windscreen wiper", even though we are later told that no one on the Four Streets has a car) and lines that read like clippings from Wikipedia ("maternal death from childbirth was the biggest single killer of young women, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds like their own") perhaps it is understandable that the simple folk of the Four Streets would miss the subtle signs of raging pederasty. On the other hand, since Father James has no character traits beyond raging pederasty, it's hard to explain why it takes his flock so long to get round to offing him in a heartwarming bit of community vigilante castration.

After her remarkable flights from fact in her statements on abortion, it's disappointing to find that Dorries is just not very good at making things up. Things in the novel appear to happen purely because they seem like a good idea at the time to the author. Characters potter in and then out again as soon as their service to the plot is done. The kitchen table that was the site of savage congress is revealed later to be made of Formica, which seems a material so unequal to the pounding described that one can only suspect transubstantiation. And when Dorries tries to sound a hopeful note of life at its end, she has apparently forgotten that the life in question is a foetus resulting from rape and growing inside a fourteen-year-old girl. In the face of such awfulness, I put on my best Oirish burr and say: Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, feck this shite.

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

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times