Tuesday 10 March 2020

The Four Streets by Nadine Dorries

The Four Streets by Nadine Dorries, reviewed by Christopher Howse.

If you enjoy advertisements for the NSPCC this is the novel for you. The Cinderella Law might have been made for little Nellie, the heroine of Tory MP Nadine Dorries's first novel The Four Streets, who is mistreated by her emotionally stunted stepmother. Little Kitty, her friend, is abused, by a priest of course. If she told on him, they'd call her "mad Kitty".

The setting is a block of streets of Irish dockers' families in Liverpool in the Fifties. The author's axiom is that, though poor, they "had everything of any real value: family, good neighbourliness and friendship". So the evil necessary to make the saga suitably miserable must come from without: the stepmother is English and the priest is in league with paedophile NHS hospital porters, Stanley and Austin, token characters, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This makes the novel sound more interesting than it is. "Heartbreaking, gripping, life-affirming" are the qualities promised on the back cover. But these uneasy bedfellows are strangers to The Four Streets. Perhaps, if the story had begun at page 289, on which something happens, it might have stood a chance. As it is, the action repeatedly falls from the author's grip, like a sticky dummy from the lips of a fractious, sickly child in an old pram.

Even a car ploughing into a crocodile of children fails to liven things up. The wicked stepmother falls into the background, comforted by Valium, when a dea ex machina blows in from the Ould Country in the form of Nana Kathleen , a sort of Mrs Brown from the telly, only wiser and warmer. Oddly, since secrecy made the horrors for the kiddies in the novel possible, she is called approvingly "the keeper of all secrets".

The author, who boasts of a background similar to her characters', though now a Bedfordshire MP, seems curiously ignorant of Catholic practice. The Pope certainly did not favour coitus interruptus.

She tells the halting story in often vacuous language. A father's patience with his children "bore testament to his temperament", though he saw his twin boys as "testament to his virility". When Nellie's father protects her, "like a lion, he roared". Anyone surprised is "in shock", which happens "on a regular basis".

If all this weren't bad enough, flame-haired Bernadette, Nellie's mother who died in childbirth, makes periodic ghostly interventions. This is the worst novel I've read in 10 years. Only with imaginative effort might some readers of a mawkish disposition like The Four Streets. A sequel, may the Holy Mother protect us, is due in the autumn.


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