The year before this blog was created, Kerry Hudson’s debut novel Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was one of my favourite novels of the year. Not only does it have one of the greatest (and very sweary) opening lines ever, it’s also a book about working class lives written by someone who really understands them, who can convey the brutality that some people face on a daily basis. So much so, that I recall having a conversation with David from Follow the Thread about how I found it ‘unrelentingly grim’. That wasn’t a criticism, it was recognition that Hudson had reflected back at me the lives of many students I’d taught without glossing over the relentless drudgery – and sometimes horror – of being poor and, particularly in this case, female. The only writers I’d seen do what Hudson can are Roddy Doyle and James Kelman (the latter being on my list of my favourite/best contemporary writers).
Although I included Thirst on my list of Ones to Read in 2014 without having had sight of the book at that stage, it would be fair to say I approached it with trepidation. What if it wasn’t as good as Tony Hogan?
Thirst is the story of Dave and Alena. They meet when she attempts to steal shoes from the Bond Street shop at which he is a security guard. As they sit in the stockroom and he tries to question her, as she devours the corned beef sandwich he’d been looking forward to, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be quite so straight forward:
The rise and fall of her accent put him in mind of seagulls swooping for scraps. His stomach knotted up. Just his luck to get indigestion from the sandwich she had eaten. …
‘I am apologising to you. Please. I say I feel sorry. I make mistake. I am new and it is easy to be confusing.
A few days later, Alena appears on the street outside the shop and asks him to have a drink with her. After a visit to the National Gallery and tea and cake, she asks him if he knows a good hotel room. Through a combination of being attracted to her and wanting to protect her, Dave offers her the bed in his one-bed, Hackney based, flat while he takes the sofa. After telling her she can stay as long as she likes and her checking that there is ‘no trading’, it starts to become apparent that Alena has been having a bad time:
She changed into her nightie, and imagined his belt buckle falling to the floor, him turning his bulk on the old brown sofa, unable to sleep for thinking about her in the next room. After some time had passed and she knew he wouldn’t come, she stretched out, pushed her head into the soft lump of the pillow that smelt a little of him. The sheets were a little grainy, but not enough to spoil the fact that she was in an actual bed, a double too. She stretched her legs wide, arched her back, let the mattress mould to her body and slipped into a thick, black sleep that lay itself down upon her and pressed her flat.
The story of Dave and Alena’s relationship – for that is what it becomes – is interwoven with the stories of their respective pasts.
Dave grew up on a south London estate with his mum. We’re taken back to when he was twenty-two, working at the local Co-op, running because it made him feel good, and plotting and saving to get away – to see the world. In one of my favourite pieces in the book, Hudson describes Dave running around the Roehampton Estate. It’s her eye for detail and swift glances into others’ lives that make this such an effective set piece:
He ran down from his block towards the bus stop, past the Co-op where he’d do his shift later that night, the Greggs with the fatty smell of hot sausage rolls pulling at his belly, towards the burnt-out GTI and the group of kids with rocks in their hands, stomach flab hanging over the waists of their trackie bottoms. They were eleven maybe, should have been in that well-meaning, always empty ‘Connections’ centre playing on new computers and drinking free fizzy drinks, if it wasn’t so uncool to be seen there. He’s known them since they were toddlers, all filthy faces and bare arses. They could have been him and his mates ten years ago, a pack of estate kids who’d end up fighting each other if no one else came along.
Alena’s story is also one of poverty, of leaving Siberia for London on the promise of work from her mother’s friend, a woman with a Chanel handbag, bright lipstick, a diamond ring and a gold bracelet. A friend who disappeared the moment Alena was on the plane, ready to be collected by another sex-worker.
Both of their individual stories are brutal and yes, unrelentingly grim, but Hudson offers them – and the reader – hope through the relationship that they form. However, this isn’t an easy coupling and there were moments where they were physically near to each other but emotionally so far away that I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, so desperate was I for the two of them to find their way to each other and some form of safety.
Thirst is a triumph. Hudson writes about poverty, about sexual abuse, about death, about alcoholism, about toxic relationships in prose that both reflects reality and – when appropriate – soars. It is a novel that will leave you broken and bruised but with a little kernel of hope.
Thirst will make my Books of 2014 list and Kerry Hudson’s earned herself a place alongside James Kelman as one of my favourite writers and one of our most important voices.
Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.