If any book last year was talked about because of its title then it would be ‘Tony Hogan Bought me and Ice Cream Float Before he Stole my Ma’, the title of Kerry Hudson’s debut novel. There was no question that the title of the book was a discussion point, which is always a good thing in a market that is getting tougher especially for new authors, yet it was also a risk because people either thought it was a brilliant idea or were completely put off buy it. I have to admit I was in the latter camp, until I read the book that is.
Janie is born into the long line of Ryan women. A line of women who on the outside simply seem like loud, abrasive, confrontational wasters by onlookers yet underneath all the front, or anger, they are really just rather mixed up. When Janie is born her grandmother would rather be at the bingo gossiping and getting drunk than coming and picking her daughter and granddaughter up. Within hours of being ‘home’ World War Three is raging through the Ryan household and Janie and her Ma end up on the streets in the rain with nowhere to live. Life is a bit grim and really it doesn’t seem to get better, especially when Tony Hogan, of the exceptionally long title, turns up.
No sooner are Janie and her Ma (she is called Ma so much you forget she has a name) settled into some accommodation by social services and the housing association, than her mother meets local hard man/drug dealer/abuser Tony Hogan and things spiral out of control and history just keeps on repeating itself, even when Janie and her Ma try and leave Scotland for places anew. There is hope in there somewhere but I won’t go into too much detail of that for fear of spoiling the book.
“I didn’t tell her that that face meant I was scared, scared for Frankie and scared for her and us even more. We were a glass family, she was a glass ma and I needed to wrap us up, handle her gently.”
I loved ‘Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Before He Stole my Ma’ (which will henceforth be known as ‘Tony Hogan…’) partly as I think it is an incredibly brave, honest and confronting – yet also very funny in parts – novel that looks at the part of society many people write off or brush under the carpet. Those people on the dole, or who find themselves living on benefits, who get sneered at and slated in the press as ‘wasters’ and looks at the people behind that label. Okay, some of the people, like Tony Hogan himself, are wasters but what about the others? What about those people who find themselves victims of circumstance who want to make a better life? What about either of these camps children, where is the hope for them? That is what ‘Tony Hogan…’ looks at, rather bluntly, and even though the book itself is set in the 80’s and 90’s its incredibly relevant considering the climates of finance, benefits and employment in the UK, and elsewhere, at the moment.
“Davey and Leanne’s parents liked a drink. That’s what Ma said when I asked her why they sometimes couldn’t walk. It was true; whether I called for Leanne morning or night there would be a sweating can of lager and a plastic bottle of cider on the table and her ma and da would be lounging on the sofa watching the one channel they could with a bent coat hanger.
Ma called them Jack Spratt and his wife because Leanne’s da was so skinny you could see his bones and her ma’s big arse spilled over the sofa’s edge. They both had blurry sea-green tattoos up their arms and if you stared long enough you could make out the dragons and lions and words crawling up their skin and under their T-shirt sleeves. The only thing I ever heard Leanne’s da say was, ‘Leanne love, fix us a snakebite.’”
I also loved all the things that you should love in a good book. Kerry Hudson is a wonderful writer; she can break your heart and make you laugh in a sentence or two. Her characters, whether you like them or not – and sometimes you won’t be sure which it is, are vivid, fully formed with warts and all, and walk of the page. The themes in the book are thought provoking, as I have mentioned, and you will be thinking about Janie long after you have left the book. I was slightly concerned at the start that the voice might bother me, not the Scottish dialect which is used on occasion, as Janie narrates the book from birth. This could have really annoyed me, with another author I might have been questioned the fact a child wouldn’t understand it all, yet interestingly with Hudson at the helm I went with it and really loved the narrative voice.
On a personal level ‘Tony Hogan…’ also really chimed with me, which of course made me love it all the more – though if this was a professional review I would have to cut all this out completely, as its not let me waffle on further. I too was the only child of young single mother in the 1980’s, whilst my father wasn’t a random American and we didn’t get chucked out of the family home – my mother took me with her to university actually, I do remember moving around a lot, never being poor but things being tough (I didn’t get the latest ‘trendy’ shoes – Dr Martens or Kickers, remember them – until after everyone had moved onto the next ones and once I think we had cereals with water as we couldn’t afford milk, it was just once – and then I had a phase of pouring Ribena all over my dinner, anyway) and I, like Janie, remember loosing myself in the world of libraries and books. Unlike Janie I was more a Spice Girls fan than an Oasis one, though I did see the latter at Knebworth, get me. Also unlike Janie I always felt I was wanted and loved and the fact Janie questions, and has to question, that was another thing that I found so moving and so deftly done in this book. I wanted to be her best friend and Kerry Hudson’s too because of the world and people she had created.
“Running to sit at the little plastic chairs I felt the library’s warm, still air push inside me to slow my thumping heart and the second-hand-shop smell snake up my nostrils, winding itself snug around my insides. When I opened the books, and I could open as many as I liked because it cost us nothing, the pictures lay on my eyes like oil on water and the dancing letters settled on my tongue with the smell and the taste of black-jack sweeties. Whilst Ma bit at her lips, ripped at her cuticles and read old magazines, I was learning how stories made me feel safe.”
You may have hazarded a guess that ‘Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float Before he Stole me Ma’ was one of my favourite reads of last year and you would be right. It is a very assured, bluntly honest and highly crafted debut novel filled with laughter and heart ache, it is full of reality, it can be grim but it also celebrates life and all walks of it and might have you reassessing some of the subconscious assumptions you find you make about some of the people you pass in the street, and about books with quirky long titles. I can’t wait to see what Hudson writes next. Highly, highly, highly recommended reading!
After that rave review you may be wondering why I didn’t have this as one of my books of 2012, as it clearly was, yet even though this was the case so were all the shortlisted books for the Green Carnation last year (the book was also shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Award and I have fingers crossed for The Women’s Prize for Fiction) and it seemed a bit odd to just make up a list of them when you already have one, if you know what I mean? Anyway, who else has read this book and what did you think? What are your thoughts on the title? Are there any books you’ve picked up because of a quirky title or avoided because of it and did the book match up?