Razia Parveen reviews Dogged, by Emma Purshouse, published by Ignite Books
This beautifully written book reflects and celebrates the beauty that lies in every woman. The narrative follows the lives of a group of working-class women along with the heartache and struggles they face. The main protagonist is a woman in her seventies and the reader is invited into her quite brilliant life. This aspect in itself is refreshing due to the usual absence of mature women as leading characters in works of fiction.
The novel opens with a dream-like sequence which seeps into the genre of magical realism:
Her emerging wing- just the one- unfurls itself in a grand gesture and then fails against her back. It is large and black. It is oily, tarry, nicotine-stained, and the feathers are stuck together. “Bloody dreamin agen,” she thinks as she awakes. (p.7)
The narrative is splattered with melancholic reminders that infuse the writing reminding the reader the fragile stoicism of the protagonist:
It’s more difficult to suck the smoke in than it used to be (p.11)
It is written in an absorbing style and narrated by someone who has a wonderful eye for detail. The writer knows her setting very well. By naming local streets and giving directions Purshouse not only paints a clear picture of the location but also tells the reader that she is immersed in the geography of her setting:
The self-harming Black Country wore its scars of road, rail and canal like badges of honour….(p.10)
.....in the distance the traffic on the Birmingham New Road whirs, and hums and sirens wail. (p.11)
Purshouse makes observations which reflects the lived experiences of many working class people:
she probably doesn’t even have a bank account Nancy is judging Marilyn by her own standards. Nancy hasn’t got a bank account, but then what would be the point? She doesn’t have any money.
The idea that these two ladies do not possess a bank account is both funny and sad. There is humour present throughout which adds to the melancholy of the situation. This is systemic in a capitalist system which disallows social mobility and is in essence melancholic, and it underpins a sense of doomed self-prophecy.
The most striking aspect of the novel is the spoken language of the characters. Purshouse has, very wisely, decided to retain the vernacular of the Black Country in the dialogue:
More tuh the point, ow um yow? What ya done tuh yower fairce?.....
“Wheyer’s yower Daniel ?”says Nancy (p.21)
This gives the characters not only a sense of belonging but adds to the emergency of their situation. Using the local dialect combined with these characters adds to the fragility and harshness of the working-class predicament. The class-conscious nature of the novel is what makes it a true reflection of a group of people, and makes it into a piece of social and political commentary which might stick in the throat of a reader from an entitled background.
One of the main characters Nancy makes a rather poignant remark about her marriage:
The Emmerdale theme tune begins. “Bloody rubbish! Dunno wot we play the licence fower!” chunters Billy. Sometime, somewhere down the years, they’d both started speaking in exclamations (p.30)
It is a very astute observation by Purshouse and essentially telling of the demise of the relationship and Nancy has simply settled for this truth:
Billy and Nancy are sitting in silence, licking their wounds. The argument had developed into a violent tongue-lashing. Verbal recriminations cutting through the air like fencing foils. Every jab, thrust, and barbed comment hitting home. Years of petty marriage misdemeanors flung backwards and forwards. Cutting. They were both still singing like salt had been rubbed in their re-opened sores. (p.46)
Purshouse’s observation here of a relationship is very common in traditional marriages, where the wife seems to be trapped by a sense of duty and socio-economic pressure. The book thus lends itself to very feminist interpretation. It then becomes rather easy to view Nancy as a female hero who has suffered greatly because of her class and gender.
There is a comical element to the story which is amusing on the surface but look beneath and it is a sad truth. For instance, at one point in the novel Nancy has to apply for passport photo and it must be countersigned by a professional. This is a barrier for her as she muses who can sign:
Bloody professional! who did Nancy know? Bernice had known her a good forty years. Marilyn had. Billy had. But publicans, depressed temporary agoraphobics, and retired foundry workers can’t sign passport photos. (p.66)
This dual use of comedy and sadness runs throughout the narrative and becomes a style which Purshouse has adopted to tell the story of the working class and its women. This is a central theme which runs like a river throughout this debut novel, but it is one which will be familiar to readers of her poetry. However, one striking difference is that this novel has given Purshouse more scope to write about and comment on the working class, women and the dichotomous nature of living a life filled with the pursuit of something but never quite clasping it.
Near the end of the novel we are given another astute observation on the marriage of Billy and Nancy:
As a couple, Billy and Nancy, had underestimated time. They’d underestimated passing of the years. They’d underestimated the damage that the empty spaces can do if they aren’t spoken about. They’d definitely underestimated each other. (p.236)
After a lifetime of being married, the reader is left wondering if they were ever really together? The ‘empty spaces’ are literally thousands of miles as one is on the way to Australia whilst the other sits on a beach in Rhyl. They remain worlds apart. Purshouse’s debut novel holds a mirror up to a class of characters who ultimately remain with the reader long after the last page is read and the book closed.
Razia Parveen has a Phd in Postcolonialism, Culture and Identity. She is a supply teacher and an independent researcher in all matters regarding BAME identity, cultures and living in diaspora, and is the author of Recipes and Songs.
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