A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It’s hard to imagine a title with so many possible meanings, literal, metaphorical or dialectal. That sets an intriguing scene for a masterly memoir of adolescence, education, growing up and family secrets.
This is the first of Janice Galloway’s books that I’ve read, and there is a ‘prequel’ to this for me to find. Her memoir of childhood This Is Not About Me ends before Janice wins the scholarship that will take her to Ardrossan Academy. Janice is young, silent, observant and a sponge for knowledge. She lives in a cramped flat, with her widowed mother and her very much older sister Cora, who has returned home after an attempt at marriage that has left her full of barely suppressed anger and violence, and a determination to win back control of her life. Cora by sheer force of will has appropriated a room of her own, and Janice shares a double bed with her mother. All are keeping secrets, and Janice has to become self-contained, and to learn to avoid stepping on the trip-wires that will provoke her sister and distress her mother. This memoir steps between home and secondary school, gradually revealing the personalities of her family, and her own transition from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, learning to survive, learning to negotiate new relationships with friends, teachers and boys. Her place at Ardrossan Academy is a source of pride and relief to Janice’s mother – her daughter’s way out of the life she might have lead.
This book does not make very comfortable reading. It could be seen as another (albeit wonderfully well-written) contribution to the ‘misery memoir’ genre – if it were not for the fact that it is shot through with a tough sort of affection, pride and resilience. Janice’s mother is sacrificial, proud of both her daughters, one finding her feet again after being knocked back, the other with the door open for a better, different future. Cora is prone to bully and domineer, but is her chick and child as much as Janice is. They hang together, are a unit.
The descriptions of Janice’s life at school defy expectations too. No tales of humiliation in her first days – she starts there with a strong sense of what she wants, and that is inspiration, good teaching, food for her imagination. She walks the same route to school for six years, soaks up her lessons, does her homework, and over time learns to negotiate from this school what she wants in her life. Already wise beyond her years, observant, experienced in navigating the moods and risks in her cooped up family, she is not here to tell us about bullying, failure and self-loathing. Her dreams beforehand are focused on learning Latin, and it does not disappoint – but her true passion, revealed through a brilliant teacher, is music.
Then come puberty, boyfriends and sex. I learned to love Janice’s mother throughout this book, and never more than when she confronts her about her first boyfriend – they were both 15. Her mother has a row with her – not because she is being a puritanical parent, but because she can see what dangerous ground this is – deciding to marry, having to marry, ending up married to the wrong person. But already Janice’s world is different, and though later, with a different boyfriend, she strays into this territory, the certainties are not what her mother’s were.
Just to give you a sense of how Janice Galloway conveys the sheer exhilaration of moving out of her childhood world into a new one and the suddenness with which it can turn to dust and ashes, this is a passage that is full of the author’s wit, skill in emotional calibration and astonishing gift with words:
Three vague promises and Macbeth is losing the plot.
Our class were watching the Thane of Glamis unravel before our eyes in Room 42 with Mrs Kidd. The King loved him, the troops loved him, Mrs Kidd thought he was the bees’ knees – everything started off so well. A handful of pages, however, and an acid-yellow whiff of sulphur insinuates the war-blackened air. Promises of an easy life, the smack of as yet untasted power: any fool can see where this is going. Not Macbeth. He picks up the scissors the witches drop and heedless, far too fast, begins to run.
The Scottish Play thrilled me to smithereens and I read to the end in bed at night using the glossary and tingling all over. Nobody told me Shakespeare would be a thrill. In addition, I was eligible to to play in the chamber orchestra and Bradley was teaching me to drive. I could draw the component parts of a motorcycle engine and kick-start like a trouper. My generation was reaping change and acquiring stuff, all kinds of unimaginable stuff. I had a piano – and a Chinese factory viola on loan from the school. I had a guitar and a boyfriend with big ideas. Wherever dad’s grave was, I was sure he was turning in it. Then the life lessons took over.
Bradley gave me the bullet. He was bored with the domestic business of going steady and at fifteen, that was entirely reasonable. [...]
This is the start of a change in her relationship to Cora, who gives her a hard time over Bradley, but begins to show just a glimmer of solidarity. Later, with her next big love Phillip, Janice has to navigate contraception (possibly the funniest passage in the book – ruefully funny, of course – describes Phillip taking her to his family doctor (to avoid her going to her own), Dr O’Flynn, who has a picture of the Pope in his consulting room, and flings the surgery door open as he shows them out so that his words My advice to you is – Abstain boom across the waiting room) and abortion. But when she is pregnant, she does find support for her choice from her family doctor, and with his help, brings her mother and sister into this world of new choices. It is all so perceptive about just how far the 70s was a decade of transformation for women, and in this case gives an example of a new-found solidarity across generations.
In one sense, I suppose, the title is literal, as Janice Galloway takes the material of her teenage life, selects, hones and creates a crafted literary narrative out of a life that is undoubtedly as distinctively messy and unshaped as all our lives are. There are many things in this book that had resonance for me – for instance, she is spot on with the hold on the imagination that the first Russian space travellers had – Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereschkova. Her school is the mixture of petty rules about skirt length and Aladdin’s cave of wonders that I remember mine to have been. She is in complete control of the story she is telling, and of the recorded speech that gives it life. The characters are alive and talking on every page, revealing their personality through what they say and how they say it. It is a story well worth telling, and they are characters well worth meeting.
Janice Galloway: All Made Up. London: Granta Books, 2011. 352pp
EPUB and Kindle editions are available.