The little old lady looks up at you in astonishment: you can see me? she says. You look around for an escape route as, frankly, she has a slightly rheumy, crazy look in her eye and you are beginning to get worried. She shuffles closer, peering up at you, a questioning almost disbelieving look on her face. You mumble an almost imperceptible “yes” and begin to edge away. But she is a stubborn little woman, and she suddenly holds up a tattered old Tesco bag-for-life in your face. The bag looks like it has come to the end of its life and there’s a slightly musty, damp, muddy smell emanating from it, but the little shrunken woman waves it enthusiastically about in front of you. Do you want to see, she asks. No, you really don’t want to see what you strongly suspect are her unwashed undergarments, but she now has you backed up against a wall and your escape routes are becoming more and more limited. Reluctantly you agree and with a huge, toothless grin the walking, talking walnut in an overcoat grabs your hand and suddenly starts to pull you down the street toward a little used, darkened alleyway. “Woah, woah, wait a minute…”, you start to protest, but this old lady has surprising strength and her grip is like iron. She drags you into the alleyway saying that her house is just at the end, round the corner and next to the creek. The creek? That’s where the bodies always get washed up, and you start to sweat with worry, and no little embarrassment, that you have been apprehended maybe to be murdered by a desiccated old woman. Oh, the ignominy of it all. You wish you’d worn clean underwear. Suddenly the sweat oozing from your palms enables you to pull you hand free and the two of you fall apart; the momentum causing the old lady to fly off into the wall ahead and her bag is thrown into the air. The contents spill out over you as you fall with a thump to the ground. Its contents revealed you discover that it is not her unwashed smalls that you have spread across your face, but pieces of fabric embroidered with something neat and intricate. The old woman curses a little under her breath as you stare in amazement at the detail woven into the cloth. You are mesmerised and jump as the old woman appears next to you out of nowhere. She smiles, offering a helping hand as you stand. She lays the cloth out on the floor of the alley, all thoughts of abduction, murder and the smell of fresh piss – your own as it turns out, adding to the ignominy – forgotten as she begins to explain what the tiny stitching means.
What is revealed is something truly magical.
Something you will never forget and will live to tell your children and grandchildren about.
You thank the fates that you met this old woman as she reveals to you her….blurb.
Under their feet lies magic…
When Sam falls in love with South London thug Derek, and Anne’s best friend Kathleen takes her own life, they discover they are linked not just by a world of drugs and revenge; they also share the friendship of the uncanny and enigmatic Deborah.
Seamstress, sailor, story-teller and self-proclaimed centenarian immortal, Deborah slowly reveals to Anne and Sam her improbable, fantastical life, the mysterious world that lies beneath their feet and, ultimately, the solution to their crises.
With echoes of Armistead Maupin and a hint of magic realism, Attend is a beautifully written, darkly funny, mesmerisingly emotive and deliciously told debut novel, rich in finely wrought characters that you will never forget.
We all love a good story don’t we? Stories are the very basis of our entire society. Some have been the basis of whole civilisations, creating order and disorder, causing wars and divisions amongst those who follow them.
But enough about Harry Potter.
The Ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about telling a good story. That’s the ancient civilisation, by the way, not just a bunch of old Greeks sitting around with a cup of chewy coffee making shit up. Although I imagine that was the case, only thousands of years ago.
They took their stories so seriously that they invented parchment, a precursor to paper, just so they could write them down before they forgot them which was a common occurrence at the time, leading to all sorts of crossed wires and civil disputes (before this things were ever so more cumbersome. You can read my detailed and highly accurate research into this in these posts about the History of the Book HERE and HERE. Part 3, etc, will appear at some point I’m – not so – sure 😉 ). Sadly they hadn’t invented the pen to write them down with so they went to war with another country, I forget which, purely to steal their idea for a device to create words from thin air, won, came home and created Greek Mythology.
And by jingo what a marvellous mythology it was. It gave us: Centaurs; Minotaurs; Gorgons; flying horses; muscled, baby oiled men, and women; petty, jealous, very hard to please gods perched up on a mountain top generally all pissed of and annoyed and taking it out on us; Harpies; Krakens (so named because they smelled of rum); vampires (ha, take that Dracula); mechanical owls and armies of skeletons.
The Romans tried to cash in on the popularity of the Greek mythologies by creating their own – and also stealing their pen tech – but they were blatant copies as they were too busy building roads, inventing drains, fiddling during fires, eating grapes and persecuting Christians to think up any of their own. Lazy buggers, the lot of ’em.
So, in the hands of the Romans, stories really took off and spread around the world as their armies conquered and dominoed their way about the place like they owned it. Which they did for a while, jammy sods.
But other stories soon came into being and took a hold in the imaginations of children and adults alike: The Brothers Grimm, for instance, invented the Fairy Tale, before selling the rights to the then young Walt Disney for practically nothing and dying in abject poverty. Disney, however, twisted and changed their stories out of all recognition making millions along the way, whistling while he worked and humming a very merry tune.
Many stories became too big-headed for paper and developed ideas above their station; they needed to be told, to be seen by their audience. And thus the Play was born. Once again it was the Ancient Greeks who first came up with the idea, but they soon got bored with it and it took a man called Bill Thackary Dusseldorf Hogspit to rediscover the format and make it popular again. At first his plays weren’t very popular. Something was amiss, a much ado about nothing really, but the young Bill decided that his family name was probably putting people off. After all, no one was going about London at the time saying: “Here, are you going to see the new Hogspit down ye olde Dog and Duck later?” or “Ooh, I hear that new Hogspit play is the bear’s bollocks. Do you fancy it?”. And so he decided that a new name was needed. It was whilst walking through Camden Market one Sunday looking for a new quill that he overheard a market holder calling out angrily to his assistant: “Hoy William, stop shaking those spears, you’ll take someone’s eye out!” that his new name presented itself to him. And thus it was that William Shake-a-spear was born. It wasn’t until a transcribing error on one of his manuscripts a few years later that this was later changed to Shakespeare and history, to the misery of school children everywhere, was made.
The Play was an extremely popular form of storytelling and has been copied far and wide. Shakespeare himself was copied many times, most notably with Daphne Shakespeare and Terrence Shakespeare, though they have mercifully faded into obscurity.
And so the years passed and eventually some clever dick invented a way of capturing images, actual real life images, onto a substance that was to become known as Film. Named after Sir Bartholomew Fillum, a theatre impresario and all round rich bugger, he took the idea and ran with it. Literally as it turns out, as recently discovered documents revealed that he stole the idea from a local chemist in Cheam, Derek Fumbler, who, as his name might suggest, dropped a roll of the then unnamed substance whilst out shopping one day, allowing a passing Sir Bartholomew to pick it up, realise it was something different and possibly valuable, and peg it up the road before poor old Derek could realise what had happened. Derek went on to invent the self cleaning underpant, but tragically died in a pants combusting event and his invention was lost. RIP. 😞
And so where does that lead us in regards to West Camel‘s debut novel, Attend.
Well, I’m glad you asked. I was beginning to wonder if anyone would, so thank you. Here, have a cookie.
There are some books that you instantly fall in love with. Then there are whole series of books that you love with your very being; ones where you feel like they are family. For me, The Tales Of The City series by Amistead Maupin are one of those. They are beautifully written, populated with a diverse, quirky and wholly memorable set of characters, have often bizarre, but still believable storylines, and the love for the characters radiates from the page. In Tales, the city of San Francisco is as much of a character as Anna Madrigal, Mary Ann, Michael Tolliver, Brian Hawkins, Mona Ramsey or D’orothea; it permeates the story and I feel that the books just wouldn’t work in any other setting.
West Camel‘s stunning debut, Attend, shares much DNA with Maupin’s books, whether intentionally or accidentally. The blurb even says as much, and for me this made me love this book even more. In fact, there is even a Mary Ann Buildings and Mary Ann Gardens right next to where our characters live. Coincidence? *pondering emoji*
Attend is a story about stories. It tells of the almost impossibly old Deborah; a woman living in a forgotten house on a creek in Deptford, in south London. When I say on a creek, I do mean on a creek. If you took too long a step out of her front door you would fall in, or get stuck in the mud, depending on the tide. The house is amazingly realised and is almost Attend’s Barbary Lane, only without the multitude of people coming and going. But it has a character all of its own, just like Barbary Lane, and you can feel yourself there, looking out of the bow window and over the creek. Deborah herself lives there alone, unseen and unnoticed by the world at large, embroidering her stories into her pieces of cloth. That is until she meets Anne.
Anne has returned to Deptford after several years away recovering from drug addiction. She has family there, but they are reluctant to forgive and forget her past life. Her ex-husband, Mel, is one of Deptford’s leading thugs and her and Mel’s daughter Julie, a mother herself now, has little connection with her mum. Anne struggles to keep her demons at bay as she tries to reconnect with her mother Rita, Julie, and her baby grandson, Tom. She meets Deborah on a bench outside a church. At first she thinks nothing of it, but Deborah is shocked to discover that Anne can actually see her and so approaches her and the spark of friendship is ignited. Deborah shows Anne her life’s work; a beautifully, and intricately, embroidered story of her life and more. Sitting on a casket in the churchyard she begins to tell Anne her story.
Sam is a young man on a self destructive spiral of anonymous sexual encounters with men he doesn’t know or care to know. He has moved to Deptford after a personal tragedy, looking to start afresh; lured to London by the promise of men, sex, bars and more sex. He meets Deborah after pulling her back from the road as she is almost run down by a car. They make their introductions and small talk and go their separate ways. Then, one night, when leaving a gay bar that had no potential for him, he bumps into Deborah and he ends up going back with her to her little house on the creek (no, not like that, filthy reader). There, like Anne before him, he discovers her embroideries and she begins to tell him her story too. Once more, the spark of an unlikely friendship is born.
When Sam is leaving her house, walking down the narrow alley back to the main road, he witnesses a brutal beating of a man by several others. He tries to hide out of sight, but, after they have finished, one of the men moves down the alley towards a frightened Sam. This is how Sam meets Derek; this is the beginning of something much more than a friendship between the two men; something that Sam never thought that he would experience and it leads him into a world that he doesn’t truly fit into, but has little choice if he wants to keep seeing Derek.
There is an element of magical realism throughout Attend; is the meeting of Deborah with Anne and Sam purely coincidental, or was it orchestrated to be so by another power? Both Anne and Sam’s lives are greatly enriched by meeting Deborah, and she is always there in the right place at the right time. They need her, even if they don’t see it at times. Also Deborah makes a quite extraordinary claim that both Sam and Anne dismiss, but is there some truth to it? Is Deborah all that she appears to be?
Like Deborah’s embroidery, the threads of both Anne and Sam’s lives intertwine, their paths intersecting and crossing, looping around each other, but never quite coming together to form a whole. Not until later, anyway. Their lives, like those of Maupin’s characters in San Francisco, are stitched into the very fabric of Deptford itself. Deborah was brought up there almost all of her life; she knows it intimately, and although Sam doesn’t know it, Derek has close, almost family like connections to Anne and Deptford’s underworld. West’s narrative is a bit like restoring one of the old pieces of cloth that Deborah finds in her (spoiler redacted); washing away the surface grime of Deptford life to reveal the beauty and richness of detail underneath. West’s use of language throughout is perfect; his previous (and current) life as an editor for Orenda Books, has clearly paid off here. Surely something must’ve passed through into him like some sort of literary osmosis, from his editing pen to his writing brain. It would be impossible not to with the immense talent of the Orenda authors at his pen tip.
West has a storytelling style all of his own, his voice coming through loud and clear, and as this is his debut, believe it or not, I feel that this is a great portent of things to come (unless he’s blown all of his literary beans on this one book and never, ever writes again. Please, West, don’t let this be so 😉 ).
Attend is a truly stunning debut; a story of the power of story itself, of legend, history, friendships and…tapestry. Seriously. This book will have you racing for your grandmother’s, or grandfather’s, needlework box and you’ll be embroidering anything you can get your hands on. You’ll be a right pain in the arse and people will start to complain that everything from the curtains to the dog blanket is covered in tiny, detailed stitches. Or maybe not, but it will give you a greater appreciation for the art of storytelling, in whatever form it takes.
In Attend, West has created a truly magical book; a moving, emotional, evocative and mesmerising story that will pull at your heartstrings and linger long in your memory. You will feel that you know these characters and that if you were to walk down Deptford High Street, or along Albury Street, you would bump into Deborah, look into her blue eyes as she realises that you can see her, and be taken on a magical journey spanning the 20th Century and beyond and, also, long, long before. You would expect to see Anne in the market, or Sam with Derek sitting in a coffee shop. You may even hail them as old friends before realising that you don’t actually know them at all and turning away red-faced and mumbling an apology.
Unlike the Tales Of The City I have no ideas whether we shall see these characters again, but even so, in one book, West has managed to create a microcosm that feels like a part of something so much larger. I want to go back to their world and discover more stories held within the stitches of Deborah’s embroidery. And that is truly the mark of a great storyteller.
Magnificent and HIGHLY recommended.
Attend is out NOW in eBook and to pre-order in paperback – released December the 18th.
My thanks to Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books for my advance copy. This review is entirely my own opinion and at no point did Karen threaten me or hold me hostage in a small, damp, darkened room with a hungry fox and a dead chicken around my neck until I reviewed it. *cries*