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Book review: What A Way To Go, by Julia Forster


In many ways, the 1980s can be seen as one of the most pivotal decades in British history since the second world war. Accompanying the rise of the city and the collapse of the Fordist, Keynesian consensus, were cultural changes that embedded themselves in Britain through the booming entertainment industry. This is the decade of Madonna; Back to the Future; Boy George; Prince; The Return of the Jedi; Michael Jackson; and Top Gun, just as much it is the decade of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Pinochet, credit crunches and miner’s strikes.

Yet just because a decade is important does not mean it is easy to bring to life. And this is part of what makes Julia Forster’s debut novel, What A Way To Go, so impressive: because Forster doesn’t simply recreate the 1980s: she makes it dance.

What A Way To Go is the story of twelve-year-old Harper Richardson – and it is through Harper’s eyes that we are transported back to the era of Bananarama, neon trousers and the gradual decline of the unions.

As you might expect from a novel following the life of a twelve-year old, this is, essentially, a coming of age story. Living two distinct, separate lives, Harper divides herself into “two cut-out versions” of herself: “one for each parent”. It’s an intriguing and – to anyone who has been a child of divorce – instantly recognisable concept. It is a sure sign of a novelist in possession of clear literary talent that Forster is able to create such an emotional connection between the reader, her characters, and the text itself.

When writing in the first person from the perspective of a young girl on the cusp of puberty, it is crucial that the world we as readers experience, and the characters we meet, ring true. And the real skill Forster shows is her ability to render this work of fiction as incredibly authentic. This is not simply through Harper’s consistent voice; but also in the way she and other characters in the novel interact and adapt to the world around them.

Indeed, the dialogue between characters, also, runs extremely true – and is often delightfully surprising and funny. And this fills in the world – and the characters – which is complemented by scenes that feel thoroughly drawn from real, lived experiences: Harper watches Top of the Pops every Thursday; and has her hair cut while Cilla Black’s Blind Date plays on the television in the background.

Because the novel feels so real, as readers we quickly slip into uncovering some of the underlying themes of this marvellously witty and insightful book. Family, of course, looms large, as Harper feels compelled to attempt to bring her parents back together. And through the prism of divorce we can see mirrored the splintering divide that – from the 1980s onwards – has come to separate British society, as inequalities widen and social attitudes diverge.

It’s also a novel about women. Harper’s mother, perfumed and chain-smoking, signs up to credit cards in order to keep a healthy stock of high heeled shoes. Harper, thinking that “buying high heeled shoes is an illness” is demonstrably unlike her mother. She visits graveyards with her father and is interested in the Socialist Worker magazine. Perhaps sensing this difference, her mother repeatedly encourages Harper to be “more feminine”. It is this question of womanhood – of what it means to be a woman – that ultimately sits at the heart of the novel. And it is therefore that much more intriguing to have the spectral figure of Margaret Thatcher looming large in the backdrop. Britain’s first – and, at this time of writing, only – female Prime Minister notoriously hated feminists and feminism; a curious figurehead indeed for any young girl to encounter on her journey to adulthood.

Forster addresses these themes and ideas incredibly well, with controlled, tight language and astute observations, alongside slight asides and allusions the reader is able to pick up on themselves.

This makes What A Way To Go far more than an enjoyable coming-of-age story. It’s also a showcase of writerly talent that is a joy to experience; and, what’s more, it is an extremely valuable and important book through which we can better understand Britain of the 1980s – and the Britain of today.


To purchase What a Way to Govisit

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