When her best friend organises a surprise TV makeover, Tessa is horrified. It’s the last thing she needs – her business is on the brink of collapse, her marriage is under strain and her daughter is more interested in beauty pageants than student politics. What’s more, the ‘Greenham Common angle’ the TV producers have devised reopens some personal history Tessa has tried to hide away. Then Angela gets in touch, Tessa’s least favourite member of the Greenham gang, and she’s drawn back into her muddy past.
Moving between the present and 1982, and set against the mass protests which touched thousands of women’s lives, Love and Fallout is a book about friendship, motherhood and the accidents that make us who we are.
I’ve mentioned before my nervousness about reviewing books at the request of their authors: my expectations always tend to be slightly lower, and I’m always a little worried in case it’s a book I just can’t talk about positively. But when Kathryn Simmonds contacted me about her book Love and Fallout – published by Seren Books on 9 June, and available in paperback and for kindle – I just couldn’t resist. I’ve always been fascinated by the Greenham Common peace camps – I remember vividly the TV coverage of Embrace the Base back in 1981, and my admiration for all the ordinary women who took part – and can’t remember reading another book that has tackled this period in our relatively recent history. “Not an earnest read” Kathryn promised – and the endorsement on the cover by Catherine O’Flynn really clinched it.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it really does deserve a much wider audience. Today’s Tessa is an adopter of every possible “good cause”, battling for funding for the charity she runs, struggling with her marriage and her relationship with her daughter. The Tessa who moves into the peace camp in the 80s is very different – not so much driven by the cause, more by the fact that her relationship with her boyfriend has broken down and that she’s bored with her office job and the routine of daily life.
In the present day, friend Maggie and husband Pete arrange a very unwelcome TV makeover – well intended, Tessa only agrees to it as a way of publicising her many causes. The makeover scenes are very funny – and you wonder how on earth two people that know her so well could have believed she’d enjoy the experience. I worried a little about the “fit” of the makeover story with the book as a whole – but it really does work. Tessa’s relationships, past and present, are exceptionally well written – in the present day there are the sessions with Valeria the counsellor, the tip-toeing around her marriage, and the excruciating awkwardness and moments of real pain in her relationship with her daughter Pippa, whose life choices are perhaps as questionable as those of her mother at a similar age.
The Greenham scenes are vividly described, a really authentic recreation of their time, an insight into what life was like for the women involved, and a fascinating exploration of some very intense relationships. Young Tessa is quite wonderfully drawn – naive, awkward, almost always out of step – and you watch situations unfold with dread and fascination. And, as the story develops, you discover how and why the young girl who struggled with her understanding of what Greenham was all about turned into the woman of today, whose personal relationships are threatened by her relentless pursuit of every possible cause.
This is a book that really has a bit of everything – there are some wonderfully funny moments, scenes when you cringe, other times of heartbreaking sadness. The Tessa of today and of the 80s is rarely anything but thoroughly likeable, and she has you in her corner throughout – even when you’re watching her in absolute frustration at her actions.
The book is always relatively easy reading, but beautifully observed. The descriptions and emotions sometimes cause you to catch your breath, and the light touch humour throughout is quite perfectly judged. This really is a thoroughly excellent first novel by a very talented writer – I enjoyed it immensely, and so will many other people.
My thanks to the author and Seren Books for my reading copy.
Kathryn Simmonds’ poetry collection Sunday at the Skin Launderette won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.
Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including The London Magazine and The Barcelona Review, and broadcast on Radio 4. Her second poetry collection is The Visitations (2013) and she was the first poet-in-residence at The Charles Causley Trust in 2013/14. Seren published her first novel Love and Fallout in 2014. Follow the author, and Seren Books, on Twitter.
(Another – really excellent – review of this book can be found on Pamreader.)