A cautionary tale set in one of the bleakest corners of England in the 1970s, narrated by a nine-year-old girl who’s growing up fast.
Sparra’s life in Toxteth, a run-down neighborhood of Liverpool, is defined by the anger and contempt of others: she’s caned at school by the headmaster, confused by the slow collapse of her parents’ marriage and instilled with a deep fear of the local police, who routinely abuse the residents. For refuge, she and her best friend, Debbie, hang out in the cellar of an abandoned, rubbish-strewn house. “Cellars are the best!” Sparra explains, but the fun’s ruined when a police officer, while attempting to roust out the two, falls from the cellar ladder, breaks his leg and is rendered immobile. What to do? Tell the police? A teacher? A parent? None of the above: employing some half-learned lessons from a museum visit, they attempt to mummify him. In reality, rioting in Toxteth in 1981 pitted angry residents against police, and Sparra’s fictional plight is clearly meant to reflect the breakdown of relations between residents and authorities that led to the wide-scale violence. Unfortunately, getting the point across means that some of the novel’s characters are little more than archetypes—the pitiless headmaster, the smug cop, the ever-criticizing aunt—and occasionally the dialogue reads more like discourse than natural conversation. But Jolliffe draws Sparra with much more care, depicting her as neither a cutesy innocent nor a cynical street urchin. Jolliffe has a good eye for the way nine-year-olds look at adults with a mix of admiration, fear and confusion.
A poised and melancholy portrait that doesn’t quite transcend its familiar coming-of-age themes.