Book review: Lobster, and other things I’m learning to love, by Hollie McNish

Tackling a diverse range of subjects, from body positivity to parenthood, this new collection of poetry and prose from Hollie McNish is earthy, angry and very funny, writes Kirsty McLuckie

Hollie McNish really wants people to get her work – her poems come in simple forms, easy to understand, and her roots as a spoken word performer are as clear as the messages contained within them.

In Lobster she also provides long and chatty essays about the subjects she is writing about. She goes as far as advising readers to skip these if they just want to get to the poems, but to do that would be to miss her engaging prose style. A lot of this writing feels like a really good chat with a group of ribald female friends.

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The subjects she tackles are diverse, from learning to accept her own body despite being bombarded with messages telling her that she should despise it, to the difficulties of growing up Scottish south of the border and the constraints placed on fun for adults. There is also a lot about oral sex, and the sometimes warped attitudes teenagers have towards it.

On the latter subject, in the dedication she asks her loving family: “please, never read the oral sex section of this book”. Squeamish readers might want to follow suit, but for the rest of us, her gynecological musings throw up some interesting points.

On the subject of women’s physical form she says: “Your body has done nothing wrong – stop telling it off”, but she also argues that the advice generally given to women seems to have morphed recently from the constant warnings to diet or improve your looks to a body positivity movement which can be almost as galling: “I get hit with self-love messages and quotes and people, mainly women, mainly white, mainly in their underwear or yoga gear, mainly sitting on really nice beaches or in fancy and very tidy houses, telling me to love myself”.

She is angry but also very funny on the subject. “Love yourself or you’re a failure messages… were starting to make me want to stick toothpicks into my arse cheeks.”

In a chapter on women’s fear of men, (Men/hastag, not all) the poem Streetlights describes a conversation between women in her family – grandma, aunt, mother, daughter – passing on the advice they have been given to stay safe, from warnings in the air raid shelters during the war, to hair scrunchies that double as covers for drinks to guard against date rape drugs on nights out.

Hollie McNish PIC: John DevlinHollie McNish PIC: John Devlin
Hollie McNish PIC: John Devlin

It is a beautifully constructed poem, albeit one which leaves the reader with a dread feeling that nothing changes.

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Some poems are short and very to the point. Love, the tobacco industry is one such work. “The kids stopped smoking / so we invented vapes / in bubblegum flavour / sold them in sweet shops.”

In, at the shop, they did not ask about you, she perfectly captures the surreal feeling after a bereavement. Other works, meanwhile, will make you yelp with laughter. Your baby is gross, written about people who bang on about their offspring, is one: “Wrap a bow round her head if you like, she’s still bald”.

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In the past, McNish’s work has dealt with pregnancy and childbirth, but now she is the mother of a teenager and she reflects wryly on the hopes and fears we have for our children. As a toddler, she bought her daughter an astronaut costume to encourage her to be endlessly adventurous. Now she is an adolescent, McNish writes of the heartrending fear of letting her go to the shops on her own.

Lobster is earthy, angry and funny and demonstrates McNish’s trademark playful love of language. And if you ever wanted to know what getting a vulva wax in Stepps is like, this is the book for you.

Lobster, and other things I’m learning to love, by Hollie McNish, Fleet, £18.99