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Joolz Denby, Borrowed Light, 13/3/06

From: Max Dunbar's Book Reviews
Category: Art
Date: 13 March 2006


Joolz Denby: Borrowed Light

Another bittersweet outing with Yorkshire’s chanteuse. By Max Dunbar

I had the pleasure last year of reviewing Joolz Denby’s latest poetry collection, Pray For Us Sinners. Denby is probably one of the best contemporary poets, and if you can’t find that collection do order it from The poetry contains qualities of beauty and imagination that should inform her novels.

Denby is a lot of things, a singer, illustrator, and poet, but her fiction seems to follow the same groove in every book. The protagonist is, to a greater or lesser extent, Joolz Denby- articulate and beautiful but with a hidden core of insecurity and introspection that makes her life more complex than it should be. The story will barrel along, mostly set in Yorkshire but sometimes veering off to Europe or, in this case, Cornwall. The narration is crowded out by a parade of laughing, jostling characters that dominate each scene with their predelictions and obsessions.

So here we go: Astra Sharp is a Bradfordian transplant living in a seaside town. Looking after her hippy, MS-riddled mother, her life is comfortably dull until the arrival of her friend’s sister Angel, a self-centred stunner who quickly turns the little Cornish resort into complete chaos. Denby is adept at showing us the rhythms of backwater life, as quiet and predictable as the tides, and so the plot has more impact when Angel and her many admirers seriously begin to disrupt those rhythms. Men fall in love and lust with her, women either imitate her or start going mad with jealousy, and it all ends in darkness.

Like Irvine Welsh, Denby has always been a skilful chronicler of those people and places which the mainstream culture tends to ignore. (When she was nominated for the Orange Prize, a journalist phoned her up: ‘Where abouts in London do you live?’ On being told that Denby lived in Bradford, this journalist apparently queried, ‘Okay. Where’s that in London?’) You believe in the characters and are fully immersed in the lives of men and women who have to work fourteen hours a day just to cling on to zero. The only problem I have is the dialogue: Denby litters her characters’ speech with a plague of apostrophes and colloqualisms. This strain to establish the authenticity of her characters ends up having the opposite effect, making them look like the patronised working-class vaudevilles you’d see in Little Britain or a Ben Elton novel. (Ben, if you’re reading this, people from Manchester don’t say ‘fook’. We say fuck. F-U-C-K. Got that?)

This is a great story, but I don’t understand why Denby doesn’t bring the incredible beauty of her poetry into her language. She does try (‘Through the smudged inkyness, the sun kept breaking through in shafts of thick, molten gold as if it were struggling to free itself’) but that line just doesn’t compare to anything in ‘Bradford’ or ‘You Need The Road’. Prose, at its height, incorporates and eclipses the best of poetry.

Borrowed Light, Joolz Denby, Serpent’s Tail, 2006

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