Brighton Year-Round 2023
There’s more to this fiction than a comic clever romp. It’s socially very acute, believes in a very individual, restorative justice for the oppressed and badly-used, in redemption at a price, and in its desires is as antinomian and heedless as Wuthering Heights. But funnier.
If you know Judy Upton as a playwright you might have an inkling what to expect in this debut novel. Witty, observant, self-deprecating, very funny, full of subversive glee, with its own moral field. I’d put nothing past this extremely gifted writer. Once you’ve read this, you’ll want her second novel too.
If you know Judy Upton as a playwright you might have an inkling what to expect in this debut novel Out of the Frying Pan, published by Hobart Books. Witty, observant, self-deprecating, very funny, full of subversive glee, with its own moral field. Anyone remotely right-thinking might feel nervous.
Upton made her reputation with a string of plays at the Royal Court (especially), Paines Plough and elsewhere, before several successful Radio 4 plays, including most recently I Know Where the Bul-Bul Sings in 2021. That play, where a young woman’s arrested on terrorist charges on returning to the UK for fighting with the Kurdish Women’s Liberation Army, quite clearly refuses to draw consolations from government or even British morality.
Whereas that play’s deeply serious, Out of the Frying Pan smiles a lot more. You realise straight away that though Brighton sculptor and daytime cleaner Yvonne (‘Vonnie’) Sharpe has just witnessed a bank robbery, been made to lie on the floor, and the robber’s had to carjack her flatmate Gina after his bike’s failed – well, Vonnie’s determined to rescue Gina, yes. But she can’t help see the world through a large if invisible pair of comic specs.
The police quickly fade (as we know only too well) and it’s up to Vonnie – and her recruited arty friends – to crack the case. This expands the comedy as shape-shifting meditations, and places with lightly-altered names so Brightonians will really get a few more laughs. There’s Bridie the actor drawing of course on everything theatrical Upton’s ever known (great rehearsal scenes, auditions where because of the director bringing in children everyone reverts to Shirley Valentine monologues, much else) cash-strapped musicians (classical Sol, also a neuro-diverse obsessive price-checker and pop-gig oppos with whom he has nothing in common), filling in Arts Council forms (lovingly lampooned) and make up a roster of investigators checking petrol stations and the like for signs of Gina or her car.
By this time Vonnie’s moulded the kidnapper’s head from memory. Everyone seems drawn to it. Perhaps he’s just a confused boy. Those cheekbones. Like Upton’s prose: well-defined, ever-alert, but always profiling a solid world. And charaters with heads if not feet of clay.
How many artists does it take to solve a kidnapping? asks the strapline. First thing to say is that though the dialogue’s as Sharpe and engaging as you’d expect from a dramatist, Upton particularly relishes description, lateral side-swipes at everything Brighton, official, art-bullshit and anti-people (the government). Indeed, to a fault, since Upton released from pure dialogue mode, releases a coruscation of description that makes you put the book down to laugh, relish and make a cup of tea. Or something stronger.
First knocked down are the police. Not that they do anything stupid, just draw blanks. So encountering an irritating London TV researcher for Sex on the beach (who doesn’t know you ‘get pebbles up (your) arse’) she responds the only way she a. She hands over DS Nelson’s card (she has the number already) “‘Oh gosh, you’re a police officer’ she squeals ‘Oh I’m definitely sure we’ll be in touch.’” Only on the next page encountering a sour checkout woman at a patrol station who admits “’One woman offered my boss offered a pot-bellied when er hard was declined.’ ‘He didn’t take it.?’ ‘He didn’t.’ ‘Shame, Probably been a lost faster on that till you than you.’”
These are early on, and the tempo and texture of the novel changes. Much of the first 100 of the 286 pages enjoy shape-shifting rituals and – always – a clear-sighted plot where Gina’s plight is coloured by those concerned with finding her or – as with Connell, Gina’s father and dodgy fish and chip owner. Ransome notes arrive. He’s got criminal connections, surely. It takes a break-in to a solicitor’s office to work out anything remotely related, but you’d not quite guess why.
Upton’s plot is ingenious. For a start the initial kidnapper’s swiftly found, and after quite a few confrontations, stand-offs and a growing alliance, Vonnie realises several things. Whist the arty people gradually fade out – except with Gina’s friend sexy Benito whom Vonnie can’t quite banish from her fantasies – more urgent passions including terror for Gina, take over.
But no-one flagged up in this fiendishly clever story is wasted. We miss the artists’ roster but they’ve done their work (particularly Sol, the keenest drawn alongside Bridie), the kidnapper – he comes early on so he’s no plot-spoiler – becomes an equivocal lead investigator. But what did he do with his cash? And why does he think this is a desperately amateur job? Vonnie believes him. And why are Connell and his henchman so shifty yet so confused? No don’t even think I’ve given away the plot. The last 60 pages are so compelling you have to read them in one go. Before that you read tranches of 50 pages and only put the book down to take in the jokes and twisty fun.
There’s more to this novel than a comic clever romp. It’s socially very acute, believes in a very individual, restorative justice for the oppressed and badly-used, in redemption at a price, and in its desires is as antinomian and heedless as Wuthering Heights. But funnier. And even Nellie Dean doesn’t give so many tips about how to professionally clean a house. Everything here is authentically sourced, even if you reckon even Upton couldn’t have done it herself. But then, I’d put nothing past this extremely gifted writer. Her plays too are not only being revived, Upton’s writing more of them.
Hobart Books are making a name for themselves publishing fiction by dramatists. Robert Cohen’s debut novel Architecture for Beginners is being published, as is Upton’s second novel. Once you’ve read this, you’ll want that too.