As a volunteer counsellor some years ago in Portsmouth – one of the settings of Glasshopper as it happens – I never ceased to be amazed by the resilience of people who had been through every kind of hell. And it wasn’t as if I came from a sheltered upbringing: I’d had a pretty challenging childhood myself. That experience often created a bond between me and the distressed person sitting beside me, an unspoken bond – counsellors don’t bang-on about their own issues – but I’m sure it made me a more effective listener.
Perhaps it also sharpened my appreciation of novels written from a troubled child’s point of view. It’s not often an author captures fully the wrenching ambivalence within a child forced by circumstances to be responsible for those who should guide him; a child still coping with the urgency of his own immaturity and vulnerability. Isabel Ashdown has achieved it in her début novel, Glasshopper.
The story has all the ingredients of family relationships shredded by unmet expectations and personal frailties: emotional blackmail, the treachery of drink, temptations of transitory comfort from a brief sexual fling, and threading through it all, whatever love and hope manage to survive. Although a moving story that often grabs you at the throat, Glasshopper is neither morbid nor depressing. Memorable characters like old Mr Horrocks who has the corner shop, Aunt Sandy, the boisterous, tarted-up family friend, and the unlovely grandmother, play minor but pivotal roles that give the narrative added depth and warmth; as do picnics on the beach, skies full of starlings, and the author’s compassionate humour. In particular, the irrepressible young Jake whose sensibility and loyalty, though tested almost to breaking point, anchors not only the novel but his dysfunctional family.
We first meet Jake with a school mate indulging in the natural cheeky mischief of a thirteen-year-old, but there are limits to any friendship because Jake is dealing with family secrets he cannot share. His mother’s mood swings, from helplessly drunk amid the chaos of a neglected household, to periods of normality when she bakes cakes and “smells warm and clean”, have driven away both her eldest son and her husband, Billy, who tries ineffectually to keep an eye on their two younger sons from a nearby bed-sitter.
Jake lives for the Saturdays he and his younger brother Andy spend with their father: crisps and coke, perhaps a film at the cinema or a fish and chip supper. During the week he has to look after Andy as well as his mother if she is on a binge. Sometimes there is only breakfast cereal in the cupboard and the smell of stale gin in the kitchen. A daunting situation which does not diminish Jake’s enjoyment of working his paper round (he’s saving for a hi-fi), or his Classics lessons at school with the entrancing Miss Terry.
But this is not only Jake’s story. The novel is structured with two timelines. As we share eighteen months of Jake’s life spanning 1984-5, in alternating chapters his mother tells her own story of childhood in a respectable family of the 1950s, her marriage to Billy, and the unsettling events of their lives; the two time lines meeting shortly before the end of the novel.
This is not a book I could devour in one or two sittings. Don’t misunderstand me: Isabel Ashdown writes in delightfully fluid prose, but her attention to detail is extraordinary. It’s as if the story is happening in real time, and it’s very visual; I needed to pause to take it all in and deal with my reactions. Time sequences and changes in location mark critical developments in the story – in Portsmouth, Brighton, the Isle of Wight, and the Dordogne in France – periods and places skilfully evoked with details of landscape, food, entertainment and social mores. Jakes own observations are revealing: visiting the better functioning household of family friends, he takes particular note that all the dining chairs match. He would: I remember similar wonder at my first sight of matching china on a visit to wealthy relatives. It is this perceptiveness of the author that keeps us close inside Jakes head and deeply involved in this period of his life.
The novel has been described as a coming-of-age story which in a sense it is, but above all it is about family love, its difficulties and demands, and sometimes its denial. The story moves towards hope of a reunited family but other secrets erupt before its devastating ending. Perhaps this final act too is an act of love.
Isabel Ashdown’s, Glasshopper, is published by Myriad Editions. It was awarded the Observer ‘Best Débuts of 2009’, and Evening Standard ‘Best Book of the Year’. On her website www.isabelashdown.com you can find details of her second novel launched in July, Hurry Up and Wait, and of book-signings and other events.