A teenaged girl’s coming of age and the return of a small-town madman make for strange but not altogether unwelcome bedfellows in this affecting debut.
Camptown is a nowhere English city described by poet Greenlaw as “awkward and diminished.” It’s the kind of place that has plenty of history—dating back to the Roman occupation—but none of it is especially interesting. As unassuming as it is, however, it’s where 17-year-old Mary George, from the small nearby village of Allnorthover, spends most of her time. Mary seems more awkward than she is—with a ragged, boyish haircut, glasses, and clunky outfits—and her interesting mixture of adolescent confusion and remarkably resilient spirit make her an engaging protagonist for a story without much of a narrative center. The outside element used to prod things along is the return to town of Tom Hepple, a lifelong lunatic. Walking by the reservoir that now covers his old family home, Tom is convinced that he sees Mary George walking on the water. Even though the townspeople dismiss any worries about his potential for violence, Mary’s mother recognizes the critical part of his personality right away: “He was a force, a hurricane, sweeping things up, breaking down doors, sucking people in and under.” Tom’s attempts to readjust to Allnorthover life, though, are put on the back burner by the author, who devotes many of her words to rich descriptions of Mary’s episodic, mostly rudderless life: smoking dope with her best friend Billy, hanging out at the record store, attempting to dye her clothes black (a stunt that comically backfires), and fumbling toward a relationship with a boy named Daniel. The ’70s setting is richly evoked, with the threat of energy and water shortages looming over daily events and the raw, slashing sounds of punk rock cutting through the local youth with a fiery intensity.
While many will appreciate Greenlaw’s intimate portrayal of Mary’s life, the focus here is diffused by less-clearly-realized investigations into her family’s past and the recurring figure of Tom—who will drag us toward an ending we didn’t need or want.