Book review: What A Way To Go

THIS amusing coming-of-age novel, narrated by 12-year old Harper Richardson, is full of humour, often of the black variety.

Set in a non-descript town in England in 1988, there are occasional scathing references to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

But for the most part, the book concerns itself with Harper’s journey, from trying to negotiate her parents’ recent divorce to learning about death and being given lessons in how to live a meaningful life.

Harper, called after “the author of a novel mum read the blurb of when she was pregnant with me,” is clueless on many fronts, just like her mother.

She is interested in the Socialist Worker magazine and wears a CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) T-shirt, but is a mere child in many ways, on the cusp of adolescence. Think Adrian Mole crossed with a young Caitlin Moran.

Set in an era before social media, Harper occupies herself by visiting the local graveyard in the village where her history-loving father lives. She stays with him at weekends on sufferance as he refuses to buy a TV, describing television as ‘bubblegum for the eyes’.

Harper, deprived of The Waltons which she wishes she could watch at her father’s place, is drawn to the graveyard because the ghosts there don’t answer her back or call her “a weirdo.”

In the town where she lives with her chain-smoking mortgage-seeking mother, Harper and her best friend, Cassie, sometimes trespass on the grounds of the mental hospital.

The pair are very close and make a pact that they will wear acid-rinsed denim jackets until they die.

Their main obsession is the Top Forty which Harper describes as being like ‘a holy rosary.’ Being up-to-date with the charts and able to sing along to Bananarama songs is the key to being cool at school.

The style guide for going to the disco includes a ra-ra skirt, leg warmers and fingerless gloves. But Harper, who desperately wants a gerbil as a pet, is not naturally cool.

She is a bit of a guileless innocent and is known for her tactlessness. She hates Laura Ashley fashion. Her mother, Mary, tells her she should try to be more feminine.

Life with Mary, an advertising agency copywriter who is attempting to complete an Open University degree, is strange.

Mary’s landlord has given her notice to leave the house she and her daughter live in, as he is planning to sell it. Being a single mother on a modest income with no savings means that Mary can’t get a mortgage. The solution is to remarry.

After just one date, a chocolate salesman called Kit (after Kit-Kat) moves in as ‘a lodger,’ introducing himself to Harper wearing Mary’s fake silk dressing gown. He shares Mary’s bedroom but the official line is that he sleeps in a separate bed.

Harper is fine with this arrangement as long as she can continue to “play my music loud and not have to tidy my room.”

Harper also stipulates that she doesn’t want any vegetarians in the house, although later she attempts to become vegan, having witnessed animal cruelty on a school visit to a farm.

Harper has a casual boyfriend called Craig who is politically right-on. But relationships are a minefield for Harper who spots Kit kissing a woman other than her mother. Bewildered, Harper wonders what’s happening.

The world is a confusing place for Harper. But this gauche yet likeable character emerges chrysalis-like, a bit more armoured for the next stage of her young life.

What A Way To Go

Julia Forster

Atlantic Books, £12.99


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