Skylark by Alice O’Keefe

Review by Max Dunbar

The Arrow of Hope

Dorothy Parker’s ‘Unfortunate Coincidence’ goes like this:

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

There have been great novels written about the spycops scandal – Kirsten Innes’s Scabby Queen and S J Bradley‘s Guest are the ones I’d recommend – but Skylark goes deepest into what a spycop relationship feels like in real time, a state of intimacy where one of you is lying. 

In her afterword, Alice O’Keefe writes that ‘I spent much of the 2020 lockdown watching grainy YouTube footage of 1990s parties and protests, which not only helped me with the book, but also reminded me of what freedom felt like.’ At that time detectives were sent on long-term deployments to infiltrate activist groups of the day, mostly ravers, squatters and crusties whose threat to national security was unclear. Some of these undercover cops formed relationships with activist women, and even had children with them – before their tours were ended, and these men (they seem to have been always men) disappeared as abruptly as they had come. 

The title character Skylark is inspired by her dead father, who, in the late stages of his cancer, got into crop circles – ‘During those last painful months, his cerealogist friend Graham would phone him when a new one appeared, and he would haul himself out of bed, hobble out to the car and drive off to see it.’ O’Keefe captures Skylark’s odd family and also her secret reality: ‘Skylark had no interest in practicality: she wanted love and pain, wanted things she had never tasted. Her inner landscape was towering trees and standing stones, open sky, brambles in her hair and mud beneath her fingernails.’ She runs from suburban respectability to get involved in inner-city, environmentalist politics. With her activist group, she manages to shut an entire motorway and turn it into an illegal rave (if only Insulate Britain were so creative!)

Then handsome, fresh faced Dan arrives on the London protest scene and makes a name for himself as the guy who always has money, and who knows how to fix things. Skylark and Dan begin a passionate relationship, but soon there are nagging domestic questions. Why does he always turn the lights off for sex? Where does Dan go on his ‘work trips’? Why doesn’t his emergency number work? Where is all his stuff?

The narrative is all from Skylark’s point of view – apart from intervals that take the form of interview transcriptions between Dan and his superior officer, done in police-issue typewriter style. At first it’s all joshing complacency between two men who believe that everything they do is in the public interest. ‘So far it hasn’t been bad. Fun, actually,’ Dan says. ‘Makes a change from real life. Home since the twins arrived is… Well. It’s hard work.’

‘Whisper it,’ replies his boss, DI Wells, ‘but that’s what they all say – real life is the hard part.’

It must, indeed, have been fun for the lads sent out into the squats and fields. Being a cop is all about early starts and following orders – after years of that, what a pleasant change of scene for the detectives who got to enter a world of parties and casual sex, and not only did they get paid for it, they got to feel like they were saving their country from the anarchist hordes. I imagine there must have been quite a scramble when the SDS began its recruiting.

But a constant dissembling takes its toll. Years into their relationship, Skylark has to put up with Dan’s heavy drinking, aggressive outbursts and comatose depressions. They have a child together, but Dan is unfit to care for him. When the relationship is over, we see Dan with his police therapist, still in the transcript style, only now Dan spends the whole time sobbing into his hands. 

There is also the entertaining spectacle of Dan ‘going native’ to some extent and becoming more sympathetic to Skylark’s ‘world changing group’. The briefings with DI Wells become more argumentative and rancorous. But by this time the activist scene is falling apart. Skylark’s crew is gradually taken over by black bloc anarchists that like to smash up McDonalds, and middle class theorists that Skylark calls ‘the Jez-Gazzes’. ‘Never mind organising frivolous drug-taking parties with your lunched-out friends,’ say the Jez-Gazzes, and also: ‘If we remove the threat of violence we’re too easy to ignore.’

For all their hedonism, Skylark and her crew are more politically shrewd than the Jez-Gazzes and their black bloc. ‘They pointed out that while most ordinary people did not want to live next to a motorway, they also didn’t want to be terrorised while peacefully satisfying their craving for sugar and saturated fats. If you lose those ordinary fast-food eaters, they said, you’ve lost the argument. It doesn’t matter how morally right you are.’

Skylark has her head in the clouds but her feet also firmly on the ground. O’Keefe gives us a searing portrayal of the joys and terrors of motherhood – Skylark turns out to be the true practical one of the relationship, left raising a child on her own years after Dan has melted away into his own former life. The later chapters are almost heartbreaking as she struggles to cope with feelings of loneliness, betrayal and disorientation – and also more undercover cops following her around. 

This is a historical novel, with all its acute resonant detail, but also weirdly timely. Draconian new restrictions on protest suggest that the Conservatives have never forgiven the rave left for making them look foolish in the nineties. In a country of lockdowns, borders bills and voter ID, O’Keefe’s ‘arrow of hope’ is needed more than ever. In Skylark that arrow will pierce your heart.

Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com

Alice O’Keefe, Skylark (Coronet, 2021). 978-1529303407, 416pp., hardback.

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Comments

  1. What an excellent review. I really enjoyed this book; I haven’t read any of the other novels and I don’t usually like fiction based on real-life events but I felt like O’Keeffe made a combined portrait that worked really well.

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