Tuesday 18 September 2007

family portrait

Born Free by Laura Hird

I first came across Laura Hird last year when I was getting all excited about a book that was about to be published called The Raw Shark Texts. Whilst trawling the internet to find out information, following an intriguing web campaign to promote the book and reading the author's (Steven Hall) MySpace page I stumbled upon Laura Hird's fantastic showcase. Filled with poetry, fiction and other work from young writers it was refreshing to read some emerging voices. Laura Hird is a writer in her own right of course and I decided to go back to her debut novel to read her own distinctive voice.

And what a voice it is. Born Free is told by the four members of an ordinary family in Edinburgh. Vic, a bus driver, suffers from impotence which seems to have spread to his ability to deal with his family. Angie is an alcoholic spinning out of control. Joni is approaching her sixteenth birthday and desperate to lose her virginity. And Jake at fourteen just wants to play Fifa '98 and keep as low a profile as possible. Having already been forced to move from their previous flat after Angie's antics turned their neighbours against them, things are not going much smoother in the new tenement. This is a bleak portrait of life in the poorer parts of the city but the narrative voices are acutely individual and filled with that biting perceptive humour which comes from having lived your whole life with the other members of your family.

It needs that kind of humour to leaven the tale of this family's downward spiral. The novel is peppered with one liners and choice phrases. Jake is called to the headmasters office after he and fellow students lock their gym teacher in the store cupboard and chant 'POOF'. Now convinced that the headmaster is gay as well, he is 'sweating with the strain of clenching my bum cheeks by the time he shows me to the door. I always thought he looked a bit like Dale Winton'. Meanwhile, his mother Angie is being interviewed by a policewoman. 'Squeaking her chair back, she stares at the ceiling. In her head she's Helen Mirren, except her chin's not as hairy'.

Both of these illustrate one of the problems with this novel. There are plenty of pop culture references in this book and whilst they may have felt fresh and cutting edge when the book was published almost ten years ago now, they just feel dated and limiting. There is also a limit to the development of the characters. Emotional maturity is not this family's strong suit and so as the novel reaches it end you don't really fell as if any progress has been made. That left me feeling rather bleak personally and I longed for something a little more transcendent, something that would raise this story above the world it inhabits. But I guess that's not the point.

I have been spoilt you see after reading Gerard Wooodward's fantastic trilogy of novels about the Jones Family: August, I'll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth. This is another dysfunctional family, but the journey of its members and the emotional investment one makes in reading about them make these books a far more rewarding experience.


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