A novel of poverty, struggle – and solidarity
In 2016 the Yorkshire-based Bluemoose Books published Sharon Duggal’s The Handsworth Times. The novel was set in the Birmingham district where the author grew up, and vividly described the challenges faced by an ordinary South Asian family at a time of political and economic turmoil, high unemployment, racial tension, National Front marches and the 1981 riots. A notable debut by a female working-class writer of colour, it was largely overlooked by mainstream reviewers. Duggal’s impressive second novel, should we fall behind, would be similarly undeserving of such a fate. It opens, beautifully, thus:
Jimmy Noone drifted, alone in a cold subway, falling away with the day as it faded to shadow. He dreamt of balloons, sky-blue, bought by his father to mark his third birthday.
The homeless Noone – literally “no-one” and perhaps a nod to the pauper Nemo in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House – lives on the streets of an unspecified British city, a place that is modern without feeling particularly contemporary. He forms a brief, intense friendship with a troubled young woman named Betwa who is new to the streets and, when she suddenly disappears, he sets out across the city to find her. He later ends up in a remote suburb, sleeping in an abandoned car. According to an interview with the author, the novel has its origins in the moment, twenty years ago, when she discovered a homeless young man sleeping in her own car, not abandoned but parked in a Tottenham backstreet.
Short, briskly-paced chapters of third-person narratives focus variously on Jimmy and four other main characters living separately on Shifnal Road: Rayya, a carer for her dying husband Kostas; a bright, observant child named Tuli; her mother Ebele; and their landlord Nikos, a Greek Cypriot who runs a failing furniture shop and who is also Ebele’s employer.
Jimmy’s unexpected arrival in their lives is the catalyst that offers Duggal a way to explore the different back stories leading up to the present day. The result is a multicultural novel spanning generations, and one largely stripped of upbeat, feelgood qualities. Some of the main characters are refreshingly unappealing, at least when we first encounter them and before we learn more about their pasts. Take the widower Nikos, for instance, whose blissfully happy marriage to Ourania slowly comes to light, informing our sympathetic understanding of his stalled construction of “a small but sturdy brick-built out-house” to contain a kiln and potter’s wheel which his late wife will never use. Other figures are more sketchily drawn, such as Ebele’s downstairs neighbours, a couple called Grace and Mandy, who become fused in young Tuli’s perspective as “Grandy”.
The connections between the characters are thoughtfully revealed in plain, unaffected prose that navigates a world of poverty, addiction and violence with unflinching detail. Duggal’s writing is heartfelt but never mawkish, and she treats her subjects and their circumstances without condescension or irony. Her themes are loneliness and social isolation, loss and failure, regret and disappointment, all slightly and partially mitigated by the minor improvements her characters are able to make to their respective lots. The modest consolations on offer hardly offset the many travails, though there are unexpected moments of spartan beauty, as when Jimmy finds, and then has to surrender, temporary shelter in a public library:
He closed his eyes, planning to rest for a moment but when he opened them hours had somehow slipped by and the library was preparing to close. He stepped outside to a low slung sun and a fresh chill in the air.
In Bleak House Dickens navigated all levels of society, from the destitute crossing-sweeper Jo to the aristocratic Deadlocks, all of them implicated in the interminable legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Duggal, with a smaller cast and less expansive social palette, explores the more fragile links connecting characters at the bottom of the social hierarchy. She is particularly convincing on the grinding realities of poverty, and of hunger, and the sad fact that those struggling daily to get by as victims of the gig economy have very little common cause with those immediately below them, at the bottom of the heap. Only through co-operation, connection and solidarity, she suggests, can they hope to better their lives. Sharon Duggal affirms that there is such a thing as society, in which there are communities with shared values and interests. She does so with passion and integrity but without tub-thumping, and her generous, humane novel is all the stronger for it.
David Collard is a writer, critic and researcher. He organizes and hosts Carthorse Orchestra, a weekly online gathering