Sitting Ducks, the debut novel from award-winning short fiction writer Lisa Blower, is a book that wears its politics heavily, and is all the better for it. Set in Stoke and taking place over a 4-day period spanning the 2010 General Election, the novel details the despairs and thwarted hopes of a community abandoned by industry, manipulated by successive governments and exploited by the neoliberal ‘dream’.
The novel opens, fittingly enough, at a Jobcentre with our main character (anti-hero? anti-anti-hero?) the perpetually unemployed Josiah “Totty” Minton, harbouring desires ‘of a three-bed semi with bay windows, fully-fitted carpets and enough of a garden to stretch his legs’. With his hand voluntarily manacled to a tool-box throughout the novel, and the Thatcherite legacy of right-to-buy inspiring his dreams, Totty not so much represents a dispossessed working-class, but forces himself to carry it around with him.
Yet, it is the notion of ‘home’ that resides at the center of Blower’s novel. Totty lives at his mother’s house, 13 Bennett Road, with his two children – thoughtful and protective Joss, and the younger Kirty, who each day ‘role-plays’ another prospective, and equally unlikely, job. One of the novel’s narrative strands is Constance Milton’s (Totty’s mother) attempts to hold onto 13 Bennett Road against the overtures of Malcolm Gandy – local boy done property developer, landlord and amoral ‘success’ story – owner of the property and the majority of the other houses on the street.
Constance’s story sits alongside incidences of rape, domestic violence, child neglect, murder, deceit, violence, alcoholism, shady politicking, death and an election. The cover art for the novel shows a man with his eyes screwed tight and his mouth straining in a painful grimace which, while content-wise alludes to the struggles to come, does in no way do justice to Blower’s prose. Although Blower does not shy away from the grim realities of parts of post-industrial Britain, the novel’s strength lies in its frenetic pacing and pitch-black humour which makes Sitting Ducks anything but a struggle. The ‘plot’ of the novel is at times undoubtedly bleak, yet the rhythm and force of Blower’s linguistically dexterous prose gives Sitting Ducks an urgency its subject matter deserves.
Aesthetically, Sitting Ducks combines its ‘traditional’ chapters – in fact the novel does not have ‘chapters’, but 44 short ‘rounds’ and a final section entitled ‘Knockout’ – with sections that include flip charts, news reports, a survey, estate agents’ property listings and even a ‘round’ entitled ‘Eggs’ which takes its lead from concrete poetry. Not all of these aesthetic choices work, and it is hard to discern a purpose beyond their playfulness in a number of cases, particularly ‘Eggs’; yet Blower’s novel is constantly inventive in its adventurousness.
Blower’s subtitle for Sitting Ducks, ‘If you’re not angry, you’re not listening’, foregrounds the unabashed political fury underlying the book. Politics surrounds the novel and its characters. While the General Election plays out in the novel’s background, only occasionally coming to the fore, political neglect and imposition are shown as having stripped employment, assets and hope from those living with the consequences of the 80s Thatcherite legacy and today’s Conservative government.
This book understands its politics, it understands its people. This book should make you angry.
About the Publisher:
Fair Acre Press is an independent Shropshire-based publisher of poetry and prose. According to the website it ‘is committed to publishing high quality books and pamphlets that are good to hold, touch, look at and read; books that will call out to you – over and over again’.
Review by Mike James
Mike is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching trade union representation in contemporary poetry. He is also a poet, teacher and ex-comedian. He has lived and worked in South Korea, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Germany. None of these things inform his work.