Emma Jane Unsworth
Canongate, 256pp, £12.99
One should never judge a book by the celebrity quotes on its cover but it was hard to resist Emma Jane Unsworth’s second novel once I saw that Caitlin Moran had called it “Withnail with girls”. I love Caitlin Moran! I love Withnail! I love girls! Sold, sold, sold.
Sure enough, I rattled through the first three chapters, chortling merrily at the wisecracks of Laura, our heroine (or anti-heroine, if you consider a heavy-duty drink-and-drug habit unsuitable for a positive role model), and her best friend, Tyler. We meet them in the aftermath of a big night on the town: “fizzy wine, flat wine, city streets, cubicles, highly experimental burlesque moves on bar stools . . .” Tyler, the Withnail of the piece, is still awake and smoking, dressed in a ratty old kimono emblazoned with her motto, “Death before defeat”.
These girls – despite being in their late twenties (Tyler) or thirties (Laura), they are definitely still girls – have spent the past nine years living together, tearing up the town, working dead-end jobs and, in Laura’s case, trying to see through the fug of stimulants in order to write a novel. Now change is looming in the form of Jim, Laura’s new fiancé, a concert pianist who has recently, to her great consternation, given up booze. Will Laura, like Withnail’s “I”, opt for a drier, more conventional life? Will she – shock, horror – go over to the “dark side” (child-rearing)? Or will Tyler convince her to carry on the party, even if it drives her into an early grave?
All the essential ingredients of a fine bohemian romp are in place: the cheerful squalor of the flat, with its grimy array of bathroom products and soiled banknotes hanging out to dry; the smart and sassy protagonists, who make you want to be in their gang (I loved Tyler baiting the local vegan hipsters who tell her off for having honey on her toast: “Bees LIKE MAKING IT. No one forces them to. Where will the madness end?”); the sexy and talented Jim, who doesn’t mind Laura’s drunkenness, incontinence or thread veins. For a good 50 pages, I thought the promise of “Withnail with girls” might actually be realised.
For the next 50, I gnashed my teeth as it all fell apart. Unsworth’s problem is that, rather like Tyler, she doesn’t know when to stop. The drunken exploits keep coming, relentlessly, and with ever-diminishing returns. There’s the night Laura wakes up with a roast chicken in her bed and the night Tyler draws on her eyebrows in permanent marker and the night they are held hostage by a drug dealer . . . All the nights blur into one long, repetitive, eventually nauseating boozeathon. By page 100, I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed with a soothing Horlicks and for Laura and Tyler to do the same.
When it comes to recreational drugs, in art as in life, a little goes a long way. It’s fun to go on a weekend bender with Withnail – and we might even try to match him drink for drink – but we don’t want to be stuck with him or, sadly, with Tyler for nine years. That is more than long enough for a reader to see past the “fun” and through to a harder truth: drugs make people self-centred and, ultimately, pretty boring.
The thing I couldn’t quite fathom about this book is why Unsworth, who I think recognises this, just doesn’t let it stop her. She includes various strands of plot that could have given the novel more depth and range – Laura’s dad is dying of cancer, Tyler’s sister has a baby, there are hints at Laura’s burgeoning spirituality – but she skates quickly over them and on to the next night out. Cynically, perhaps, I felt that she, or her publisher, had decided that the “Girls do drugs, too!” concept would be enough to get people reading.
I don’t want to be cynical, though, because Unsworth is a bright talent. Perhaps all she needs is to find an editor who knows when to call time.