Reviewed by Susan Osbourne
Louise Levene’s new novel is such an unadulterated treat that it’s hard not to gush about it. Set in the ‘70s it’s a sharp, very funny satire on adolescent schoolgirl life, and like all good satire it has a dark edge to it. It opens with Amanda Baker, one of the Four Mandies – aka Baker, Bunty, Stottie and Queenie – enjoying a crafty fag while scrutinising the graffiti adorning the toilet wall of the private girls’ school she attends. The Mandies are the bad girls of the fifth form, skiving sports in favour of bitching about their teachers, thumbing The Sensuous Female and expressing their exasperation at the seemingly ever-present Julia, the supposedly sporty prefect who does, indeed, turn out to be Baker’s nemesis. Chief rebel, Baker is the daughter of a mother who left when she was three, destined for life in the Bahamas, and a miserable father who has somehow persuaded Spam, as Baker christens her stepmother, to be his domestic skivvy despite her full-time job which may well be the equal of his.
Levene’s novel is stuffed full of pitch-perfect period detail: ‘It was always busy in Mrs Baker’s kitchen, even when there was no one in it’ describes to a T the clashing horror of patterns that was the ‘70s. There are references which will have women of a certain age and education both squirming and cackling in recognition – remember uniform inspection, kneeling on the floor to ensure that the hem of your skirt was only an inch above it? Baker fires acerbic one-liners like scatter shot but beneath her smartarse exterior lies a slurry of adolescent insecurity exacerbated by her carping, moaning father and her well-meaning but emotionally awkward stepmother. It’s a very funny novel which had me smirking like a teenager for much of it – the teachers’ internal monologues are a particular joy – but Levene’s sharpest skill is her ability to signal the pain beneath Baker’s witty rejoinders. I’m already looking forward to rereading it.
Half-way through reading The Following Girls Alan Warner’s The Sopranos popped into my head. Perhaps it was the occasional outbreak of profanity – Warner’s novel certainly has its fair share of that but how could it not be as it follows Our Lady of Perpetual Succour’s School for Girls choir, hell bent on shoplifting, tattooing, body-piercing and launching themselves at submariners in the Man-Trap disco rather than winning the competition they’ve travelled to the city to compete in. It’s a compassionate, very funny novel but if it’s a more ‘70s satire rather then school girl shenanigans that you’re after and you haven’t yet read Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club you’re in for a treat. Less caustic than his wickedly funny What a Carve-Up, it follows a group of Birmingham school boys from 1973 to that fateful day in 1979 when the ‘80s were kick-started by the election of Margaret Thatcher. Their growing pains are played out against a backdrop of grainy newsreel images from the Grunwick pickets to the death of Blair Peach, in a vivid evocation of those troubled times.
Susan Osborne blogs at A Life in Books. Never, ever leave home without a book
Louise Levene, The Following Girls, (Bloomsbury: London, 2014) 978-1408842898 255 pp., Hardback
This review is Susan’s revision of an original post on her blog.