REVIEW: New Northern Voices

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13 October

Durham Town Hall

Elvira Parr

Any author’s debut novel will undoubtedly be one of some significance. It is a project incomparably dear to its creator, but must also be a statement of their intentions in the literary sphere. No easy feat by any means, but last Saturday’s event presented to its audience three remarkable novelists who have clearly not buckled under the pressure.

That’s not to say that the journey from idea to publication has been an easy one. Each lamented the multiple jobs, self-doubt, rejection and fear that comes with investing so much time in what might well come to nothing. Jessica Andrews’ novel, Saltwater, for example, was something that she had tried to write for a long time, even toying with a male protagonist to distance herself from the narrative. However, time and experiment revealed that the novel “had the most life in in it when it was closer to my own life”.

Indeed, Andrews revealed that a sense of duty overcame any urge to deny the auto-biographical nature of her novel. “If you never read about your own life,” she said, “you convince yourself that its uninteresting, unworthy”. It thus felt important to have a young woman from a working class family as her protagonist, as a dedication to her teenage-self. Likewise, Okechukwu Nzelu’s protagonist Nnenna, a half-Nigerian girl living in Manchester with her white mother, is a testament both to his own similar upbringing and to another under-represented voice. As two northern writers who have moved away from home, both Andrews and Nzelu beautifully capture the complexity of the relationship between place, culture and identity, as their protagonists navigate social expectation to uncover an authentic self.

Both authors had also chosen to explore mother-daughter dynamics, in part, Nzelu claimed, because its indestructible nature allowed for a stronger focus on self-exploration than a tenuous romantic relationship. Andrews, however, hastened to point out that this female bond is “no soft pink thing”, but rather one susceptible to the same intensity and conflict as the deepest of romances. Indeed, Lara Williams’ novel, Supper Club, explores the dangers of fierce female relationships.Williams shows a particular interest in the idea of transgressive fiction from a female perspective. The secret society of women at the centre of her novel is, in part, a study into “what it means to lean into something that frightens you” in an attempt to overcome that fear by extreme methods.

Interestingly, Andrews’ and Williams’ takes on the female body revealed a fundamental contradiction in our society’s attitudes towards women. “Women are forbidden to ever forget about their bodies”, Andrews said; from puberty they are given a “sexual currency” and little else is of any worth. Yet Williams’ supper club is comprised of a group of women determined to finally “inhabit bodily space” in a society where men assume that privilege. Can we conclude from this that the patriarchy, having denied women of any identity beyond their bodies, also refuses their right to use them as an expression of power?

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.

Photo copyright Marion Botella