I don’t know whether there is a mini retro revival of the nineties, whether I’m seeking out the comforts of my youth, or it’s a coincidence. But I’m reading a lot of books set in my teenage years. Between 1995 and meeting my husband in 2001 were years that most influenced the person I became. Like our featured heroine today, I can’t say I particularly liked myself back then or that, when I look back I’m proud of all of the choices I made. But I am glad I made them and that I got out the other side relatively unscathed. However I can say that I loved the 90’s. In my memory they have a gaudy sheen. They’re gooey like sparkly lip gloss. They smell like an old ashtray full of stubbed out Marlboro lights, walking home through the half light of summer mornings and unfinished warm Smirnoff Ice. They sound like Sleeper, Pulp, Oasis, and Robbie Williams going off the rails. They’re populated with my friends talking crap late into the night while playing Tekken on the PS1. They were when the country I lived was simply the coolest place in the world. We were proud of it and assumed everyone wanted to be us.
This last summer feels to me like someone has ripped up and stamped all over the country I thought I lived in, one that has moved on a bit, but in the fundamentals was pretty much the same. Unless you can remember the morning of 8 May 1997, you can’t know how tragic the morning of 24 June 2016 was. It finally hammered home that the pre-millennium years have gone forever. I’m a sad, aging hippy but instead of yearning for muddy fields, free love and dodgy LSD, I want to cuddle into a world of hair glitter, New Labour, and Friends on Friday nights. I can’t go back , except by hitching a lift on the imaginations of authors like Deborah Andrews and clicking through Buzzfeed articles on bad nineties hair.
Before this blog melts entirely into a nineties rewrite of ‘We didn’t Start the Fire’, I’ll get on with the review.
So, to indulge my flight of nostalgia, the lovely people at Freight Books sent me a copy of ‘Walking the Lights’, Deborah Andrews’ first novel. It’s about a graduate drama student living in Glasgow, psychologically falling down over the summer of 1997, and what it takes for her to get herself back up again.
Although I liked the concept and plot, like Pride and Prejudice, (I bet that’s a first, comparison wise) it was the small touches of that made the book stand out. Those small touches all knitted together built up an absolutely believable memoir of a young girl in the late nineties in Scotland.
It’s not just the bang on cultural references that made me feel like I was coming home – it’s Deborah Andrews portrayal of place. Most people who write about Scotland forget that there’s more to it than romantic highlands, handsome Edinburgh, and gritty Glasgow. My admiration for authors writing about near contemporary Scotland is linked to how much time their characters spend out of hackneyed scenes and in anonymous post war housing schemes in the back end of places like Stirling, Arbroath, or Broxburn. To misquote George Bailey, that’s where most people in Scotland do their living, dying, loving and playing, and so how well you bring these places to life will dictate the authenticity of your prose. The rest is for tourists.
Maddie (the main character) putters about Glasgow, Stirling, Edinburgh and in between trying to find some sort of rudder to guide her out of the choppy waters of youth. Some other reviewers said that this book is like a feminist Withnail and I. While I can appreciate where they are coming from, I think that it doesn’t do it justice. Incedentally the idea of a feminist Withnail and I is more than I can imagine. Walking the Lights has much more heart. If I were looking for a better comparison I would lean more towards’Girls’ or ‘Reality Bites’ because for all that Maddie screws up, the book is about her struggle to be better at life as she grows. Withnail has no interest in getting better.
She’s inherently likable, even though she hates herself, and the situations (certainly the ex boyfriends) the author creates are not so very far removed from my memories of my early 20s.
Why read it? Because it captures the feeling of the nineties all of us of a certain age are trying to hold on to while dealing sensitively with a young girl who wants someone to love her more than she loves herself. It bears all the hallmarks of an author who is able to create sympathetic characters who inhabit a real world and despite some clumsy prose and slight rush to get to the end, it’s an excellent first novel which stayed with me a good while after I turned the last page.