Book review: What A Way To Go by Julia Forster

Julia Forster
Julia Forster
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Amstrads at the ready for a sensitive trip to the 1980s, finds Kirstie McLuckie

What A Way To Go by Julia Forster | Atlantic Books, £12.99

This novel is set in the 1980s and doesn’t let you forget it. The era is well remembered and researched by debut author Julia Forster, but at times the constant references to products and practices of the time are reminiscent of one of the “best things about the 1980s” programmes so beloved of low budget TV channels. Here a computer is never just a computer, but an Amstrad, and items such as crisps are always brand namechecked, for example as Pickled Onion Flavour Space Invaders.

The main character is 12-year-old Harper, a child of divorced and dysfunctional parents before it was quite so unexceptional to be one, and the story follows her attempts to create some order out of her chaotic life between two households. With both her mother, complete with money and man worries, and her father, with his buffoonish obsession with the Second World War, there has been a shift in the adult/child dynamic.

Harper is not a hugely original character, being a pre-teen girl who loves to read and thinks of herself as a bit of an outsider, overwhelmed by being on the cusp of an adult world but with a kind and caring nature.

First person narratives where that person is a child can be tricky things to pull off too. If you are as adept a writer as Roddy Doyle or Mark Haddon you can describe the world through a child’s eyes, in their words and authentic voice, but still have the reader understand the complex issues they are witnessing where the protagonist does not. If you have the skill of Jacqueline Wilson you can aim squarely for the child or young adult audience, reflecting back at them all the pathos of a bewildering world.

I was never very sure which approach What A Way To Go was attempting; if the novel is meant for adults, which the darker subject matter of terminal illness and divorce, single parenthood, hysterectomies and loneliness would suggest, the childish voice of the narrator jars rather than achieving a level of bittersweet truth.

If, on the other hand, this is aimed at the young adult market, with Harper’s love of her pet gerbils and first stirrings of boy fancying, the 1980s references might just be bemusing.

But as a first novel it has promise, with some sensitive writing and funny lines, and I can see it appealing particularly to readers obsessed with 1980s nostalgia.