Review: Vivien Horler
The Queen of Bloody Everything, by Joanna Nadin (Mantle/ Pan Macmillan)
Dido’s life gets off to a somewhat rocky start. It is the early 70s and her mother rejects her middle-class parents’s values, gets pregnant, has the baby, and moves into a London squat, sharing space with a transient group of people.
Edie rejects any help offered by her parents but when, during the long hot summer of 1976, a great-aunt leaves her a cottage in the Essex town of Saffron Walden and money to live on, Edie and Dido move in.
Edie drinks, smokes, takes drugs and lovers. Her mothering is casual in the extreme – on their first day in the new house Edie has a lie-down and tells six-year-old Dido she can explore – as long as she doesn’t go too far. How far’s too far, Dido wants to know. “Timbuctoo,” says her mother. “Where’s that?” “The end of the road.”
In fact Dido doesn’t get that far. She explores the green tangle of the back garden, thinking it is like a forest where all the best stories begin: Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Max seeking the wild things.
Minutes later Dido’s own fairytale has begun. In the wall at the end of the garden is a door. It’s locked, but that doesn’t stop Dido climbing a tree to peer over and discovering a scene of enchantment.
A stark naked boy and girl of much her own age are sitting in a plastic paddling pool on the lawn, and behind them is a grand house. Dido drops out of the tree, introduces herself, strips off her clothes and joins them in the pool.
And so begins Dido’s infatuation with Tom and Harry, the girl, their clean, organised house, their proper mother who does things like bringing them glasses of lemonade, and their father who goes off to work every day like a proper father should.
Not that the children’s mother Angela is immediately taken by Dido. When Angela asks Dido about her father, the guileless six-year-old says she doesn’t have one. “I thought it was Denzil, but Edie said don’t be daft because he’s black.”
Soon Dido and Harry are BFF, and Dido is in love with Tom. But while she idolises her friends’ wonderfully normal lives, Harry is drawn to Edie, whose house has no rules, who will produce cheese and crisps for dinner, who swears and wears ballgowns that once belonged to the great aunt to go and speak to the school principal.
And it’s not only Harry who is intrigued by Edie – so is her father.
Forty years on Dido is sitting at her unconscious mother’s hospital bedside, telling her the story of their lives. It is a sort of fairy story, with a locked door, a widower, and a wicked stepmother – but with no enchantment. Bitterly Dido adds: “There is no fairy godmother, no genie, no amulet or grail. There is just us. You and me.”
The Queen of Bloody Everything is a terrific story, beautifully and often hilariously told. I loved it.
- This review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on February 18.