#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Laurie Graham

Blog Post 11: The Dress Circle (1998)

We was in the Tamarind Bar last night, drinking Ankle Breakers and waiting for Mary and Scouser to get back from the Jolly Roger Cruise. He said, ‘Ba, we’ve not done bad, have we? Twenty-nine years and still going strong?’

Today is another 90s novel, also with a first person narrator, but quite different to the last blog post. Laurie Graham is an extraordinary writer and her novels are so varied in their settings and stories. But ‘The Dress Circle’ is probably my favourite, partly because it was the first of her novels that I read. And why do I love it so much? For Ba’s voice. She could’ve stepped right off the screen/pages of a Victoria Wood or Alan Bennett monologue.

Ba and Bobs are turning fifty. They met at school along with Scouser and Mary. The four of them come from working-class backgrounds, in the Midlands, and both couples have built up businesses from scratch. They are the nouveau riche with all their snobbery towards the middle-classes with their floorboards, faded rugs, and ‘granny’ furniture. They have moved up several notches and their life is now filled with new kitchens, cruises, and race horses.

Ba’s son is already married with two children. The daughter is on the verge of getting wed and Ba and Bobs are looking forward to having an empty nest. But then Bobs lets out his secret: he likes wearing dresses.

The novel deals deftly with this revelation and how family, friends, and the golf club react. But the brilliance of the writing is how Ba comes to terms with a side of her husband she never knew about.

I said, ‘There are men who wear dresses. They’re not poofters and they don’t interfere with kiddies and they don’t do nobody any harm, but when you find out you’re married to one you want to crawl into a blummin’ hole and die.’

The first person narrative makes the reader feel like they are actually in the room with Ba, listening to her confessions, her snobbery, her exasperation, her love for her family and the annoyance and hurt they shower on her. She thinks you should just get on with life, pull your socks up, count your blessings.

Everybody’s got something these days. Everybody’s got syndromes. Messing around with doctors because the dark mornings get them down, or their kiddies won’t sit still and learn anything at school. The blummin’ strap. That was what made us sit still and learn. Everybody’s just got excuses these days. And allergies. I don’t know where they’ve all sprung from. I don’t think they even knew about hay fever when we were kids.

But she fervently hopes there’s some tablets Bobs can take to sort him out and let things get back to normal.

This is a novel you can read in a sitting and it will leave you wanting to devour more of Laurie Graham’s canon of work.




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