20 Books of Summer 21 #10 & #11 – O’Hagan & Sissay

I’m just finished reading my 13th book of my 20 books of Summer 21, here are two reviews of earlier reads.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

In my experience, there tend to be more novels celebrating female friendships than male ones. However, occasionally one comes along that bucks the trend as Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul did, and a year later we had Mayflies, which is now out in paperback this summer.

It’s the summer of 1986 in a small Scottish town. James, eighteen, is ‘a bookish sort’, effectively abandoned by his parents:

My mum and dad imagined I would love swanning about in a council house by myself. In fact, I spent more and more time at Tully’s and within a few weeks I felt I was finished with them.

Tully is James’s best friend:

Tully was twenty years old and a lathe turner. He impersonated Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by taunting his boss all week and drinking pints of Black and Tan all weekend. He looked like Albert Finney, all slicked-up hair, but in Tully’s case spiked with soap. At that time, he had the kind of looks that appeal to all sexes and all ages, and his natural effrontery opened people up. He was in a band, obviously. […] he knew how to love you more than anybody else. Other guys were funny and brilliant and better at this and that, but Tully loved you. He had the leader thing, when he was young, the guts of the classic frontman, and if any of us got together we instantly wanted to know where he was. Some people gain that status with power or with money, but Tully did it with pure cheek.

Tully, James and the others all take their music very seriously, and when Tully comes up with the idea of a trip down to Manchester to a festival at the G-Mex where all their favourite post-punk bands will be playing, a weekend away, it’s a definite plan. The night before, Tully, Tibbs and Noodles (as Tully often calls James) convene at Limbo’s flat in Paisley, joined by Hogg later. The next day they catch the bus together, first stop on arrival, Piccadilly Records – a famous record shop. Next stop a small gig in a small venue somewhere if they can find it! They do, and James meets a girl – they’re both going to the G-Mex the day after. All too soon it’s the big gig, and James manages to lose his ticket. Tully gives him his, assuring that he’ll use his charm to get in, what are best friends for after all?

You can’t help but fall for Tully, he is irresistible – but as his youthful star burns bright, you do wonder if it’ll burn out. James is obviously bound for higher things. O’Hagan captures their personalities brilliantly, and those of their friends. It’s such a joyous read being with these young men, on their weekend which they wish would never end.

Then, cut to thirty years later in 2017. James is now in London, when Tully gets in touch with bad news. He’s got cancer, it’s terminal. He has two aims now, to marry Anna, and then he asks James the biggest question of all.

We are on for a three-hanky finish as you might imagine. O’Hagan doesn’t spare the reader at all, and presents a nuanced picture of both sides of the debate that will tug on your heartstrings. What isn’t in question is that James will stand by his friend, their relationship remaining strong, their respective partners Anna and Iona provide perspective, and some of their old friends remain to entertain us. This is the first novel I’ve read by O’Hagan, and it won’t be the last. A glorious and moving tribute to friendship, this would make an excellent book group choice for discussion. Superb. (10/10)

Source: Own copy. Andrew O’Hagan, Mayflies (Faber 2020) 277pp.. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Oh my! Poet and playwright Sissay tells the story of his childhood in care as it was, no holds barred. His birth mother, a young Ethiopian mother studying in England was sent to a home for single mothers in Wigan, but refused to sign her son over for adoption. She was called home to Ethiopia as her father was dying and had to leave Lemn behind in care. The authorities called him Norman, and found him a foster family, white and very Christian. His birth mother being unable to return to claim him, ‘The Authority’ as Lemn always calls the social services claimed abandonment when he was three and a half.

However he grew up a happy and inquisitive child, clever at School too, and having to do a lot of praying. When his foster parents, the Greenwoods had a son of their own, followed by two daughters, he took it in his stride, but of course with age, he began to notice his difference. Lemn loved the sibling rivalry with Christopher, a year his junior, but the social workers didn’t. It was the beginning of more challenging times for Lemn, still called Norman.

Having gained a copy of his files, Sissay peppers his memories with extracts from them. Some well-meaning comments from social workers who just didn’t understand his race, others who ignored the strong religion of the Greenwoods, those who didn’t recognise sibling rivalry for what it was, reading a more racist agenda into it, countless meetings where decisions were taken about him without ever asking him. It was a real surprise when the Greenwoods decided they didn’t want him any more. He found their rejection very hard to take, especially as they wanted no contact at all.

Now thrust into a series of awful children’s homes for his teens, some essentially borstals, it is amazing that Lemn survived. The one ray of hope was his new senior social worker, another Norman, who tried to do his absolute best for Lemn and supported him through these brutal years, helping him to thrive, not just survive. Then, of course – The Authority chucks you out once you reach eighteen. Lemn stages a wonderfully innovative and precocious campaign to get the council to give him a proper home of his own. His story here ends with hope, but it doesn’t work out that way for so many children in care.

Appended to the end of this short memoir are details of some organisations that help children in care, details of Sissay’s own charity foundation which works to ensure that no care leaver leaves care feeling alone, and a selection from his poetry collection Gold from the Stone.

Sissay’s writing puts his poet and playwright’s ears to good use in this memoir. His recall of his own feelings as a child is full of emotion, good and bad, always questioning, sometimes almost lost for words at the discoveries he makes – but never for long. He never masks his disappointment in The Authority, who deprived him of his birth mother. This is beautifully written, blistering and eye-opening stuff, an absolute must-read. (10/10)

Source: Own copy. Lemn Sissay, My Name is Why, Canongate paperback, 212 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

14 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer 21 #10 & #11 – O’Hagan & Sissay

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I didn’t get far with Mayflies last year but, given how much praise I’ve seen heaped on it by people whose opinions I trust since, I think I chose a bad time to start it. Must try it again.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I bought my copy last year when it first came out after reading John Self’s review, but it didn’t call to me then… now, it certainly gelled and I loved it and wept!

  2. JacquiWine says:

    I’m delighted to see how much you loved Mayflies. It really is the most wonderful novel, the sort of book where you feel fully invested in the characters and their emotional lives. And that ending…it manages to be heartbreaking yet strangely triumphant all at once. As you say, a superb book!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The first half was just so joyous, then the second half so heartbreaking, and I agree with you totally on the ending being strangely triumphant too.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The first half is such fun – there’s a great scene where they’re having a drink in the hotel where The Smiths are staying and their reactions as they come through the hotel are great and hilarious. The second half is a total contrast, but the friendship is still there and stronger than ever.

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’ve never read O’Hagan and I can’t think why. Female friendship has been a big theme in my summer reading, so I’ll read Mayflies to balance out — it’s on order at my library. Fab to get two 10/10 in a row!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Mayflies made me cry. My name is why made me so cross (on his behalf!) – both strong emotional reads. You’ll like Mayflies I think.

  4. BookerTalk says:

    The Sissay memoir left me feeling angry. The attitudes shown by the people in authority (with the one exception) showed little concern for a child but I was also puzzled by the attitude of his adoptive parents. Sending him away with nothing and then never to keep in touch with them seems unnecessarily cruel .

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