Party people: clubbers in Birmingham in 2012. Photo: Getty
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The nine-year bender: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

For a good 50 pages, I thought the promise of “Withnail with girls” might actually be realised. But when it comes to partying, in art as in life, a little goes a long way.

Animals
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.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

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 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear