April 2010 Archives

Pretty Bad Things

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c. j. skuse
Chicken House
March 2010
The proof copy of this first novel carried a recommendation by Kevin Brooks, which was enough to push it ahead of other reads. Make no mistake, this is a fabulous debut and if I fail to give it five stars it is only because of a couple of caveats. Skuse, female, writes with a lot of balls. The two main characters, Paisley and Beau, are brother-and-sister twins. At the start of the novel Paisley is receiving counselling at the Immaculate Conception Academy for Girls. The book is narrated by each character in their own voice (alternating a chapter at a time), and it has to be said that Paisley's chapters are by far the strongest. Paisley is the life and soul of this novel. She has the drive, the imagination, the guts, the energy, and the mouth. My word, does she have a mouth. Skuse makes that mouth utter lines of colourful confrontational dialogue that are an absolute joy. As a first novel Pretty Bad Things has no doubt received a good deal of editing. Like Lucy Christopher (another exciting debut author), Skuse is a graduate of Bath's creative writing MA, and the novel is the result of long gestation. The shame for me is that its narrative momentum dips slightly at that very crucial midway point in a novel. I would have to read it a second time to put my finger on precisely where the flagging occurs and where some ratcheting up or streamlining could have been beneficially applied. It's just a shame that after a scintillating opening, followed by a movie-worthy confrontation with a fortune-hungry grandmother, the pace starts to drift once brother and sister arrive in Las Vegas on their mission to be reunited with a father they haven't seen for more than a decade. When at last they devise a plan to get themselves noticed by staging a series of mall robberies, the momentum, and more importantly the character chemistry are re-established. Paisley is re-energised and the contrast between her and the more nervous, cautious Beau is well-handled. The novel's backstory (death of the mother when the children were three years old, father in prison etc.) is never wholly believable, but that does not materially matter. What matters is that Skuse has arrived on the scene with a voice that I for one will be longing to hook up with again.