If reading would make me a better writer of fiction, then I should be amazing by now. Perhaps it is because I’m always on trains or in the bath that I get through so many books, but my latest read was The Handsworth Times by Sharon Duggal. I’m not above a touch of nostalgic Brummie, especially given I spent much of my younger life walking backwards and forwards to the library on Soho Road in Handsworth, and as my extended family were raised around Lozells where this book is also set. The author grew up in Birmingham, with her Punjabi family who immigrated to the UK.
Despite now living in Brighton & Hove, she retains an affection for Handsworth:
Handsworth is an inner-city area typified by diverse communities; where adults share similar economic deprivations but generally live culturally segregated lives whilst their children play out alongside neighbours of all backgrounds, sharing popular youth and music culture. Growing up, I was surrounded by people written off by the education system and/or struggling to make ends meet but these particular personal experiences were never ones I came across in books I read. There are two things here that are fundamental to my journey as a writer. Firstly, it soon became apparent that practical circumstances meant being a writer was not going to sit high on any priority list. Secondly, Handsworth was an extremely lively and exciting place to grow up in, full of untold stories that never seemed to get written about.
The blurb tells us it is a story of loss and transition, a “pulling together because ultimately, there is such a thing as society”. There is but I’m not convinced this book is about the positives of society; more, it focuses on community, finding like-minded people even within a sea of local difference.
It relates to an early 1980s working-class family led (I use the term loosely) by Mukesh Agarwal, who saves a life and loses one (or more). Mukesh has many burdens to carry, so tries drowning himself in an alcoholic haze, which renders him powerless. The family includes 2 boys (one dies, one ceases caring) and 3 girls (one who escapes to university and falls in love with a Pakistani boy, one whose first experience of affection is same-sex, and one who is attacked by a man she is attracted to) all struggling with Thatcher’s fractured Britain of 1981. The National Front was marching, the counter attack was mounting, the riots were blazing and unemployment was high, especially if you doused yourself in Eau de Whisky before going into work. Mum, Usha, has an OCD cleaning thing going on until she is actually saved (I think) by a friendship which forces her into community engagement. There’s all the day to day stuff of friendship, gender war, protest and pop music in a family which seems to be going nowhere, carefully juxtapositioned against questions of power and sexuality, where violence is masked and hidden, yet accepted.
At times, it is shocking, so I wanted to shake some of the main characters while feeling a deep alarm for the situations which arose. I’m no sure it is about working-class solidarity as The Morning Star suggests but more an in-depth private viewing of how the various characters all deal with their loss and their challenges. Do you hide away or get out and fight, or a variation somewhere between the two depending on what day it is? Read and find out.
A wonderfully evocative first novel from Sharon Duggal. It kept me gripped throughout.