A marvellous book about a complicated, difficult, extraordinary and far too short life.

opening remarks

Here’s another novel that featured on the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist: Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe.

It’s a book I was interested in any way given Andy Miller has been singing its praises both on Twitter and on the Backlisted podcast.  It was also lovely to hear Stripe discuss Gordon Burn’s novel Alma Cogan on an episode of Backlisted.  Her insights on that novel – which I haven’t read – prompted me to buy Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile.  In fact the whole reason I’m reading through this year’s Gordon Burn slate (well, the novels anyway) is because I bought this book, noted it was nominated for that award, saw the other books on the short and longlist, noted that I was keen on reading a couple of them (two of which I owned) and decided that I’d have a dip.  I’m so glad I did because the last two novels have been crackers.

So… no pressure at all.

knee-jerk observations

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile – which by the by is a great title – tells the story of British playwright Andrea Dunbar who died suddenly at the age of 29 from a brain haemorrhage.

If I said I knew who Dunbar was before I picked up this book or was intimately aware of the three plays she wrote in the 70s and 80s I would be lying.  I blame living in Australia and being a child when Dunbar was at her height.  (I note that her play Rita, Sue and Bob Too was made into a film in 1987 and in 2010 Clio Barnard directed a film (The Arbor) about Barnard’s short life).  Stripe tells us from the outset that this particular take on Dunbar’s life has been manipulated, re-structured and embellished: 

Real people rub shoulders with fictional characters, some utter words from letters and scripts; others are gleaned from letters and scripts; others are gleaned from occasional references, newspaper cuttings, hearsay or fractured memory.  It is not the truth and exists purely within the realm of speculation.”

The wording here is adamant, almost angry, a stern reminder that what follows is a novel, not a biography.  It might just be the usual legal boilerplate to avoid litigation, and yet it’s also a reminder that we can never know what truly was said, what truly motivated Dunbar or any historical figure, that their interior lives are their own.

I can only imagine how many other teenagers in a similar situation – coming from poverty, not expected to achieve anything but the bare minimum – were given similar advice:

You learn something grisly everyday:

There’s this striking scene about a third of the way through the novel where Andrea meets Max, a Director associated with the Royal Court in London, to discuss her play The Arbor.  At the time Andrea is living in a women’s shelter having recently escaped – with her baby daughter Lorraine – her abusive boyfriend.  She’s amazed that anyone in London would appreciate her scribbles, but she’s also pragmatic, she understands her work has value and right now, in her current situation, with a young baby and no permanent roof over a head and very few resources to hand, her writing is the only commodity she has to sell.  So when Max arrives he’s hoping to have a discussion about the work, about Andrea’s raw but already accomplished play.  Andrea, on the other hand, has other priorities:

I can’t help but think that if this novel was about a fictional playwright living in poverty and a single mother to boot her exceptionalism would we see her taken swiftly from that environment and resettled in London with a Nanny and a stipend so she could focus on her writing.  But Andrea is not afforded that opportunity. The real world dictates that she remain a single mother, struggling to survive while also trying to establish herself as a playwright.

I’m in love with Stripe’s dialogue, its colour, its character, its authenticity.  I know conversations like the one below between Max, Eileen and Andrea are fabrications, Stripe makes that abundantly clear in the preface to her novel, but still, it’s through this dialogue that Andrea comes alive:

It’s fascinating to read about the filming of Rita, Sue and Bob Too.  While Andrea wrote the screenplay it appears it was heavily re-written, with more humour injected to mitigate the harsh reality of living on an Estate.  The poster for the movie certainly doesn’t say: older man cheats on his wife with two 15-year-old girls or this is a story of the working class.  Instead, it says middlebrow romantic comedy romp, with a much older Rita and Sue:

Andrea was kept off the set because Clarke knew she wouldn’t accept his changes, his direction. This leads to this heated exchange in the pub in Bradford (where some of the filming took place):

Ahhhh, so that’s where the book’s title comes from.  By the by these chats between Andrea and her best friend Eileen are the highlight of the novel:

This is just awful, but highlights and reinforces that this isn’t a fairytale:

The Gist Of It

I started Adelle Stripe’s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile having not heard of Andrea Dunbar or her work.  I finished the novel feeling like I knew Andrea intimately, that I understood her desires, her anxieties, her frustrations and fear.

While reading this book I have read articles about Andrea but also about her daughter, Lorraine, who was jailed in 2007 for gross neglect after she allowed her 2-year old to ingest drugs which ultimately killed him.  And now that I’ve completed the book I want to go out and read Andrea’s plays and watch both Rita, Sue and Bob Too and the 2010 film The Arbour which, much like this novel, documents Dunbar’s short life.  Stripe has done something special here.  There’s nothing hagiographic about her account of Andrea, Stripe doesn’t shy away from Dunbar’s alcoholism, her horrible choice in men or her failures as a mother.  And yet while the subject matter is difficult – the physical abuse Dunbar experiences, the poverty she faces on a daily basis, the prejudice she’s exposed to just for being ‘working class’ – there’s nothing earnest or miserable about this book.  It’s full of cheek and humour and some cracking dialogue and, most of all, it celebrates Dunbar as a unique and brilliant writer, one who deserved a longer more fruitful career.