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      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Josie Barnard

Josie Barnard
London 1996

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"Bugger this for a lark," our mum said. "I’ve had enough."

Yes. This is satisfactory. It is printed in my best hand, in my orange Junior School exercise book. I am pleased.

It is my turn to read out to the class.
If only all the school’s fourteen children weren’t in this one class.
I tighten my cross-legged position so that my heels lever me, straight-backed, higher slightly than the others, defiant. The classroom feels as cold to me as a disused, falling down barn. I close the exercise book in my lap and press my hands flat over the title: My Summer Holiday.

Josie Barnard’s first novel feels deeply autobiographical, and by all accounts it is. Allie is eleven when her mother walks out on her husband and three children. She is never to reappear in the book, apart from the odd postcard, or Christmas present. The four of them rattle around in a remote house in Yorkshire trying to feed themselves on burnt offerings, occasionally resulting in being taken to the famed Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip shop. Their father’s ineptitude, emotionally and domestically, is rendered with an honesty and cool empathy that characterises the tone of this accomplished book

Allie is a loner. She hides, as the title suggests, behind a pulled down fringe and heavy glasses, behind a pokerface. Her school career is one of odd-ball cleverness, her emotional landscape as often as not about finding ways to torture her siblings, and drive away the odd girlfriend her father manages to find. Childhood as it really is. Through adolescence Allie’s defences work perfectly, but being a clever, truculent, self-possessed eleven year old with a will of iron is one thing. Being a vulnerable kid, then pubertal, then adolescent, then adult, without the ability to let anyone near you is another.

Josie Barnard has an original, quirky voice. This is a small story, as many autobiographical first novels are – but it’s perfectly formed. The pain of a ruptured family, the banality of everyday struggles, and at the centre a real person who illuminates the narrative with wit, black humour and a certain skewed romanticism.

Reviewed by Jennifer Merk


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