You may remember at the very beginning of 2013 I raved about a debut novel with the rather ‘stop and stare’ title of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. It was by a debut author Kerry Hudson who seemed, by some kind of witchcraft, to totally depict and understand my childhood; lots of moving, not masses of money, lots of trips to the library etc. It was one of those ‘blimey, this book gets me and I get this book’ moments that we are lucky to have every so often. After a small amount of stalking and some meringue caterpillars (long story) weirdly this Kerry Hudson became a mate who loved Alphabites and gelato – not together – as much as I do. A true bonus from a brilliant book. Yet this of course created a dilemma when Thirst came out. I wanted to read it because its predecessor was so brilliant however Kerry was also a mate. So I decided I would do what I would do with any book I want to read, and always will do, and just judge the book on the book. So here goes…
Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
Security guard Dave first meets Alena, not long arrived in the UK from Siberia, when he catches her trying to steal an expensive pair of shoes from a luxury store (which naturally pays its staff piss poorly) and helps her from being arrested, much to the dismay of his manager. Why Dave does this he is not sure, though the fact she is rather attractive may help, and neither is Alena yet in Dave she senses a safety from the world which she desperately needs and soon manages to find a way into his life and into his flat. No, not in that way you dirty lot but from this initial meeting and in the weeks after a relationship of sorts starts though if it is one that either can speak of or will last neither of them know, especially when their backgrounds, and indeed their baggage, start to come to the fore.
Hudson writes both of these characters intricately, and also does something very clever by revealing their pasts in glimpses here and there and creating layers of both Alena and Dave at their best and their very worst, their most attractive and their most ugly. Initially I struggled with Alena as though I knew she had a dark mystery she was running from in her past, which gives the novel a great momentum from the start, I couldn’t work out if she was an innocent victim caught up in something horrendous, or someone far more calculating and unlikeable.
She went to the mirror again and inspected herself; she didn’t have food around her mouth, anything in her teeth; she had good lips, pretty eyes and beautiful breasts, everybody said so. She checked that her expression wasn’t too pathetically grateful, though she was. She was so grateful and very afraid of being sent away, but the trick of staying was to make him the thankful, fearful one. And as she caught herself smiling in the mirror she reminded herself that this was all just a trick, there was nothing real here, and killed the smile instantly, like a small insect under a hard finger tip.
The same applies to Dave, though almost in reverse. Initially we see him as the lonely good guy who looked after his mother when she was dying of cancer and also followed her dying wish of marrying the wrong women. Poor Dave. Yet as we learn more his story gets darker as grief and regret, along with loneliness inside a relationship, all take over. Who here is really the good and who is the bad? Do we have to be one or the other or do we have both in us which we have to keep in check?
Of course these are the points that Hudson is making with Thirst, or one I thought she was making, is that no character is black or white, nor is anyone wholly good or wholly evil. We are all various (I nearly said fifty, shame on me) shades of grey and we have all done things in our past that are commendable and things that we all feel ashamed of. Hudson looks at these both with Dave’s failed marriage and also Alena’s past (which I don’t want to give too much away of because it’s utterly chilling and needs to be experienced cold) as she becomes caught in the sex trafficking industry and has to do anything she can, no matter how bad or how dark, to get through it. Both characters ask the questions of how far we can be pushed as people both physically and emotionally and what we will do in order to survive life and all it throws at us.
Before I make all this sound to dark and depressing I must mention two things. Firstly there is a love story at the heart of this and one which thankfully isn’t saccharine or sugar coated but real and bumpy and awkward and wonderful. Secondly there is a lot of humour in Hudson’s writing, a sentence can make you laugh before the next one tears you apart emotionally and vice versa. There is also hope. Though by me saying that don’t think this book has a happy ending; you will be left to decide that, which is another brilliant stroke. Like its predecessor Thirst looks at the sense of belonging, be it to places or people, that we as humans all hunger for (no pun intended) and the journey that the quest to find it takes us on, be it another country or just through the highs and lows of getting through your day to day life.
He went and sat on the scorched, scratchy piece of grass outside with his food. The dogs did nothing, just flicked their tails in his direction and flared their dry black nostrils when he opened a bag of crisps. And there they sat together, all of them with nowhere to go.
To bring up Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma again, the things that I loved about it are the things that I also loved about Thirst and I think could be the things that carve Hudson’s career for the long haul and make her stand out. Her characters are real, funny and flawed, they walk the places we walk and whilst they pay attention to the beauty, or beautiful ugliness, of their surroundings and the people who walk in and out of their lives, they also live and breathe, go to the toilet and eat crisps like we all do. Hudson’s celebration of the simple and everyday actions making them all the more vivid. They are also about those people who might not be able to put pen to paper and write about their own life experiences and yet whose stories need to be told in all their beautiful brutality.
Phew, if I had hated it that could have been awkward. I would have just never reviewed it and anytime it was mentioned swiftly say ‘Did someone say free gelatos?’ There is the slight point that I now think Kerry is rather a genius and have some internal envy and rage going on, but let’s move on. If you want to see more rave reviews (they are popping up everywhere) head to Lonesome Reader and Workshyfop. Who else has read Thirst and what did you make of it? What about Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma? Which other books have you read which brilliantly celebrate the small day to day things in life that make us who we are? And which books have you read that shine a light on the people in society whose voices are sometimes lost in the literary middle classes?