Tuesday, 9 August 2011

'a pinch of salt'

Lucky Bunny 
by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson does narrative voice like no one else. This is the third novel of hers I have read that employs a first-person narration and there is something immediately engaging about having a new and often distinctive voice speak to you. A retrospective life obviously takes you back to another time period as well and after the pre-World War I setting of The Great Lover and the 1970's childhood of Watch Me Disappear, Lucky Bunny is the story of Queenie Dove, an East End girl who grows up during the Blitz and makes a life for herself amongst the criminals of Krays-era London. It's worth noting the expression on the face that graces the cover because it contains just the right mixture of wry amusement, strength and a hint of something darker to convey the experience of reading Queenie's tale. On the surface this is an entertaining read of wartime privation, petty crime and good time girls but the darker undercurrents are what make it a far deeper and more interesting read and should lead us to question how much we can take what we read at face value. Queenie herself urges us to do just this at the very outset.

I don't think I'm a confessional person. Bit of a storyteller, that's all. Take what I say with a pinch of salt, if you like. Luck always beggars belief...I hope I've left that other-named girl behind: I've worked bloody hard at it.

That 'other-named girl' is born to Irish mother Moll and jailbird father 'Lucky Boy' Tommy Dove in the Poplar of 1933. Tommy is a charming rogue who knows how to talk himself into a woman's affection but whose most regular relationship comes from his frequent brushes with the law and those periodic stays at Her Majesty's pleasure. The totemic animal of the title is a gift that he brings to his daughter, perhaps as early as the first time he sees her and that she carries with her through life, a white bunny rabbit with a pink bow around it's neck, its bright felted wool 'turning grey eventually, like all of us'

Why do I think he must have given it then and there, the first time we met? Because the shape of my life had begun and I feel certain it was Dad who began it. Things. That was what he gave me from the start in the place of anything else, and it was what I ended up craving. Gifts and glamour and novelty, and if it came with a whiff of naughtiness so much the better.
So we can see the beginnings of the personality that will embrace the notion of crime. A bit of thieving here and there is what allows a family to survive in wartime, to maintain a bit of glamour and who does it really hurt? Do we blame the regularly absent father or the increasingly alcoholic mother, or is Queenie perhaps born to and perfectly suited for a life of crime? Even at only six years of age Queenie shows her willingness when she steals a bottle of milk for her and brother Bobby ('a few currants short of a teacake'). The closeness of her bond with Bobby will become important as family tragedy and wartime evacuation shatter the already fragile bonds of their family unit. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, of which there is plenty, but point out those moments that give us an insight into the formation of that enigmatic smile on the cover.

It is when she and Bobby are evacuated to a landscape familiar to Dawson readers, the flat fenland near Ely, that Queenie assumes the name she will carry from that point on. We also get the first glimpses of her tendency towards fantasy and development of the persona that accompanies the new name, all part of her natural ability to adapt and survive. So sometimes she is Queenie, who has a white horse called Betsy in her father's stables, or it might be Queenie, whose father owns the best pie and mash shop in London. Unsuited to country life it isn't long before she returns to London and on her departure there is another moment of significance. The daughter of the family they have been staying with, who has spent much of her time tormenting them both, runs to see them off at the station and Queenie recognises something in her eyes.

Although it's new to me, I suddenly know exactly what it is, and a feeling like a spanner turning over in my stomach locks it away. I think it's going to be useful to me. I'm going to store it up...My way of reading people. Ah, I think. I want to smile. Elsie feels guilty. That's what guilty looks like.

Bobby will return to the country but Queenie remains in London, under the care once again of Tommy, for whom the bureaucracy of war offers plenty of opportunities to avoid the draft and fiddle money from the state, and occasionally her Nan who has been like a surrogate mother to her at times. Then comes the turning point in Queenie's life, the event that removes the last restraint that might have kept her on the straight and narrow, an event that actually happened in 1943 in Bethnal Green Tube station. It was naturally being used as an air raid shelter but when a crowd surged into it on the night of March 3rd, 173 people were killed and over 90 injured in the worst civilian disaster of the second World War. One of those people was Queenie's Nan. Without Nan's influence Queenie falls in with her mother's former crowd, The Green Bottles, a group of glamorous good time girls well practised in the arts of 'hoisting,' or shoplifting to you and I, and it isn't long before Queenie has learnt the ropes herself and employs those skills of perception and acting to quickly excel amongst the group.

What follows is entertaining as I said, who doesn't like a heist? But, as ever, it is Queenie's personal relationships that prove most interesting and in particular that with the man closest to her, Tony. Acting first as driver and protector when Queenie and friends are involved in the practise of 'rolling' (taking money from potential punters on the street before doing a runner) it is when they become intimates that Queenie's independence and strength are questioned. It is when protection becomes control and anger becomes violence that we get into the novel's darker terrain. When Queenie becomes a victim of domestic abuse herself she is forced to reconsider her anger at her own mother for 'allowing it' to happen to her. The whole notion of guilt has been there from the very beginning, Queenie saying 'It's my fault, I think. I'm the cleverest' so that even her achievements in helping the family survive are tainted.

And then we have the question of veracity. How much should we believe? Even before we get to the more sensational elements of the plot we have learnt that all criminals are in the habit of exaggerating their own significance in events and Queenie herself has warned that 'perhaps I'm making it up, you know, putting myself at the centre, everywhere that mattered.' Most telling perhaps in this story of survival is Queenie's discussion with her friend Stella about luck and Queenie's belief that even in a hopeless situation you can make things better or worse.

'Carry on struggling. Or close your eyes, give up. Or . . .think about it. Use words, try to make sense of it, even while it's happening - tell yourself a story about it . . '

Come back here on Thursday and you'll be able to read my interview with Jill, where she answers questions about the creation of narrative voice and other aspects of her work.


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