Book review: Slug… and other things I’ve been told to hate, by Hollie McNish

An intoxicating mixture of poetry and prose, Hollie McNish’s latest book is a taboo-busting delight, writes Fiona Shepherd

Hollie McNish PIC: Robert Perry

Hollie McNish is a writer who loves writing. She wrote that. Don’t take her word for it. Read her latest book Slug and revel in the eloquence, accessibility and humanity of her writing.

Although known primarily (initially?) as a performance poet, McNish is a prolific producer of prose, fact and fiction, recollections and opinion, and it’s all here to be sampled, considered, debated and enjoyed. Her poems are direct, comic, tragic, warm, thought-provoking and often come with a sting in the tale, but her prose also flows off the page like red wine freely swilled with friends on a night out, or in. (Did I subconsciously choose red wine as the social lubricant because she devotes an entire section to menstrual blood? Probably.)

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McNish tackles topics which might be considered squeamish, even taboo, by British society, the kind of stuff we are told not to discuss growing up even though we desperately want to because it’s intrinsic to our lives – bodily functions and desires, for starters – alongside barely more socially acceptable outpourings of grief, bewilderment and common sense.

Slug... and other things I've been told to hate, by Hollie McNish

She begins with endings – a beautiful, funny catalogue of writing inspired by her grandmother who died during the pandemic, celebrating their raucous chat about different generations’ experiences of sex and life lessons passed on (such as how to game the Pizza Hut salad bar).

Her gran makes cameo appearances throughout, a beacon of playfulness as well as a reminder of ignorance past. McNish is keenly appreciative of social and sexual progress down the decades – but also, now as a mum herself, of how far remains to be travelled.

The section entitled “Growing Up” includes meditations on mild naughtiness, celebrations of swear words and poems on “appropriate” clothing for girls which are candid, sinister and logical, highlighting the contradictions of sexual education.

McNish effortlessly navigates the bitter and sweet throughout. In the “Parenting” section, she glides from blissful observation of her own daughter via the tragicomic gin o’clock, with its entirely reasonable desperate demands, to a poem about babies on buses that goes like a train, to laugh-out-loud thoughts on the parental etiquette at kids’ parties to an intriguing but sobering essay which takes in John Kellog’s sex phobia and the rise in labiaplasty.

There is an articulate approachability to all her writing. She is clear-sighted on why we need to talk about menstruation, masturbation, and all sorts of gender and race inequalities, normalising these normal topics. Whether she is hitting home hard on, for example, the domino effect of period poverty, throwing a curveball on cat ladies or engendering a new appreciation of the lyrics of Shakira, McNish is eminently readable and relatable because she is both fallible and fascinating.

Slug…and other things I’ve been told to hate, by Hollie McNish, Fleet, £14.99

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