- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

On Books

COLD WATER
By Gwendoline Riley
Carroll & Graf, $20, $165

Gwendoline Riley was born in 1979, and her novel "Cold Water" has been praised in leading British reviews as heralding a new voice, more distinctive, shorter and sharper in its expressiveness than that of much coming-of-age writing. And so it is.
The heroine is Carmel McKisco, a dreamy creature of today's (as opposed to the Sixties') counterculture, but at the same time insightful and brutally honest when it comes to herself. If people ask what she does, she tells them she's a "barmaid, not a struggling whatever."
Carmel lives the barmaid's life, up most of each night, surrounded by girlfriends and male companions who come and go, living in down-at-heel digs in a rainy English provincial city, Manchester. But she also reads. When we meet Carmel, she has dipped into "Death in Venice," and on one occasion later in the story we find her with an engaging contrast of books by Dashiell Hammett and Turgenev.
Carmel's worlds collide in ways you might not expect. She periodically takes her books to a shop on Shudehill, to sell them, and comes away with perhaps 15 pounds enough to pay for, among other things, half an evening's drinking in a bar. Or take Carmel and her friend Margi, talking about their friend Mackie's claims to having lived a wider life:
"Margi and I are never sure if he is making these stories up, but we feel inclined to believe him. And anyhow, Margi and I lie about everything as a matter of course. A line I like from Hemingway is 'I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together.' Exactly. I believe in subterfuge. That was something I liked about Tony."
Tony, a great drunk, is the man in Carmel's life affecting her most at the time of writing.
He has dropped her, on the grounds that she doesn't seem the most cheerful of people, but his shadow still looms over her life, a situation not helped by his turning up occasionally at the American-style dive where Carmel works and rekindling the embers for a girl trying to fall out of love. It is Tony he admits to having read only one book, "The Grapes of Wrath" who provides the novel's pivotal point when he declaims to some people at a neighboring cafe table:
"I'm well aware there are people in this country reading Chaucer, checking out the Financial Times and worrying about the Presidential election in America. But the large majority aren't; they're eating fish and chips and digging up roads …"
We are back in the two nations, first spawned by the industrial revolution and defined by Benjamin Disraeli, and more recently given fresh resolution by the draconian smartening up of the country economically during the Thatcher years.
The denizens of Miss Riley's hopless yet spirited tale are not digging up roads; rather, they give the impression of having escaped the one world something not possibly for their parents' generation growing up before the liberating Sixties without having managed to hitch on to the other, prosperous one.
These lost souls are stranded in a social no-man's-land where the sustaining of life on a livelihood earned in bars and clubs, pop bands and jobs in book and record stores (where much pirating of tapes and/or discs goes on) is tenuous enough while young. It can only promise descent into the worst for the future. As Carmel somewhere remarks to her friend Irene, "We've done a good job of ruining our lives …"
Carmel's closest girlfriend is Margi, with whom she works. Each is 20 years old, each an escapee from a dysfunctional family.
It is a milieu in which the fathers tend to die young, often of drink. The mothers, relieved of the misery of being beaten and generally misused by their former spouses, perversely turn out to be unable to manage very well without them. It is no wonder that Carmel, by an early age, has a view of relationships as failures for the most part.
After the men died, widowed mothers and their children often moved, in Carmel's case "from our small semi[detached] in Prestwich to a small semi in Whitefield. It was a miserable place, always a mess."
Before leaving home, and despite understanding later that losing your temper will cost you any fight, Carmel has a distressing telephone conversation with her mother, still at her office, and let's loose a tantrum of nightmarish proportions:
"When I put the phone down, I sat still for seconds before going into my bedroom, tearing the mirrored door off my wardrobe, and launching it down the stairs.
It rolled on its corners and though it didn't break, it did hit our glass door and cracked that. I kicked the banisters as I walked downstairs. The last one broke, snapping into a splintering, snapping explosion. I felt a slump of regret. I went outside to wait for Mum to get back, pushing the ice-cold door open carefully so as not to spill broken glass on the step. I closed it behind me. In the moonlight the cracks glittered like a spider's web across the doorway. I sat down on the pavement and shivered."
What a way to live. Girls like Carmel and Margi routinely began spending nights out at age 15. Soon afterwards they were gone. Much has been written in recent years about a Manchester renaissance with sooty old monumental buildings sand blown clean and an invigorated cultural scene. At the heart of that world are the Carmels and Margis and Irenes, of it but conscious of not being in the big picture.
Meanwhile, around them is the old Manchester, immutable city with Piccadilly at its center and its satellite towns left over from the heyday of the cotton mills (Macclesfield is "a cold and plain town"). Carmel discerns the spirit of Edward Hopper, where in bad weather "all of Manchester, all the pavements and the buses and the buildings were slathered in a thin, slippy, silty rain. Everything looked dirty. Everything dripped."
And the puddles, which anyone who knows the city remembers as the dirtiest you every saw in your life. Carmel is hardly into her story before she is minded of trouser hems with "a black tidemark an inch of so up where they've dragged through Manchester's sad, silty puddles." In another mood altogether, going to visit a friend in Manchester's sister city (as Minneapolis is to St. Paul), "In the bright winter sun the tram rails stretching down to Salford shone white. The puddles were like silver leaf … They gave me an electric feeling."
Carmel, for all her ups and downs, is not finished yet, and as she sallies forth for a trip down to Macclesfield to visit the ailing Steven (it sounds as if he is dying of AIDs), we are gladdened by the vision of her in her "dustbowl jeans, a red jumper, new socks and my Mary Janes, with my leather jacket and my standard issue black wool Salford bin man hat."
Irene is from Cornwall, and Carmel dreams just as the local pop bands belt out songs of yearning to escape the bounds of their world of getting away to Cornwall's sunshine and sea.
Whether the Cornish will want her is another question, for the West Country's visitations from Travelers and other lost souls from blighted, post-industrial elsewheres has not been cause for much celebration among the locals. But Carmel is blissfully shortsighted on that front.
One could enjoy going on reading about Carmel, and Miss Riley, who won Britain's Betty Trask Award for her novel, has got her literary career off to an exciting start.


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