Rita is an ageing sex-worker tottering out, despite being prone to falls, in high heels to find a new man to pay the bills. Now with her own small flat, she makes daily visits to the dilapidated house in Primrose Hill where she used to work, to check up on its remaining occupants: Joseph, the son of Sal, the brothel’s deceased madam, who spends his days riding the buses, and Annetta, a former colleague, prone to fugue states since childhood and now suffering from dementia, who regularly escapes from her locked bedroom to shed her clothes in the park.
I’m never completely comfortable with comedic takes on tragedy (as borne out by my reviews of Real Monsters and Lost and Found), but this one seduced me right from the start. Beautifully written, somewhat in the style of Beryl Bainbridge and the pre-Cromwell Hilary Mantel, with a cast of deeply flawed and disturbed characters, there’s an undercurrent of tenderness and violence that swept me along to the end. These are the kind of eccentrics who feel persecuted by inanimate objects, like Rita dressing for lunch with a potential replacement husband (p66):
The wardrobe doors drooped from their hinges like bad teeth. Rita wanted a blouse and there were plenty, a whole lifetime of blouses, a good fifty years’ worth. She chose the pink georgette that wouldn’t crease and flicked at the top button. It popped off like a bottle cap and the blouse collapsed backwards at the shock. She chose another blouse, not so pressed, with a tie all in knots. The next, a pale floral print, showed a mustard-coloured stain on the left breast; a fourth, woollen, in cream, was the wrong season.
A deadly feeling clamped down on Rita like a lid; a fire lit. Something scrabbled to get out, something red-hot with claws and a skin of spikes. Oh, she got cross, she did. Rita needed to pick a fight. The blouses still on the hangers shuddered when she kicked at the wardrobe; some slid like broken eggs to the floor. Her tantrum blowing full, she began to kill the blouses one by one, cracking hangers as easily as babies’ forearms.
Thanks to Picador books for my review copy; if you’re someone who doesn’t take the world too seriously, this is a novel I’m sure you’ll enjoy. For my own fiction featuring tyrannical clothes, see A Dress for the Address.