Iris, standing outside the library with her petition, didn’t bother to target the two men who were strolling out of the covered market and along the pavement towards her, but instead turned her attention to a studenty girl who had just crossed the road and was heading towards the post office. The three successive Saturdays that she had spent collecting signatures had turned her from a nervous rookie… to a focused assessor, skilling in predicting the exact response of a given passer-by, homing in on the keen and the weak with ruthless accuracy. She felt she could publish a leaflet on the subject.
The girl was in her early 20s and was wearing a jacket that looked vaguely ethnic. This was a good sign, as were her clumpy lace-up shoes. Other items of clothing that seemed inexplicably linked to an interest in the fate of the library were zipped-up anoraks, hats with brims (this included flat caps) and knitted scarves. It had been a chastening moment when Iris realized that she simply had to look out for people who dressed a bit like her.
commentary: On a not very cheerful day recently, I took down this book hoping for distraction, and entertainment in a re-read.
It succeeded beyond my wildest expectations: I stopped thinking about my problems and cried laughing at the scenes at the Cockney pubs* and at the surprise party. This book is hilarious, charming, clever, heart-warming – it is everything a novel should be. I think I might be Lissa Evans’ biggest fan – see entries all over the blog for proof – which is slightly embarrassing because now I know her, and I feel like a stalker fangirl. But I just am really, and we both have to accept that.
Spencer’s List was her first novel, and follows the lives of three people in London over the course of a year or so. Fran is stuck in a crumbling house in an un-cool part of London: in negative equity and sharing with her brother. Her neighbour Iris is trying to cope with her father and her teenage sons. Spencer has lost a close friend, and is supposed to be getting himself out and about again. The three wander into and out of each other’s storylines to great effect. Evans seems to be able to get under the skin of any character at all – I really don’t know how she wrote so effectively about being the mother of teenage boys when she has no such experience at all. And she has that ability to show you how irritating someone is, and then turn it round so you see them a different way. Tammy McHugh in her tartan skirts and crimson lipstick is a splendid example here. And she knows her clothes, as you can see from the excerpt above.
I think she isn’t given the credit she deserves just because she is so heart-breaking and funny at the same time. She should be on the Booker list or winning the Baileys or Costa prizes. That’s all I can say really – read her. And if you are having a bad day, then she will help you out of it. What could be a higher recommendation?
*This is the Cockney pub:
Sidling into the bar, he had witnessed a group of Japanese businessmen being taught the words to ‘Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road’ by a man dressed as a chimney sweep.Libaries always a subject of interest on the blog (Lissa to blame there too). And the fight for libraries continues – the picture is a protest at Friern Barnet in London. You can support them here.