There’s something about train journeys that make me daydream. Whether it’s the gentle sway of the carriage or watching the passing British countryside through the window (more likely it’s the severe delays that afford me more time to ponder life), I’ll often find my mind drifting towards nostalgia.
So it’s no surprise that train journeys are a prevalent motif in literature. Written by Rose Thomas, Bess: Now That I Have Found the Words is the first novel published by the Liverpool-born author. It tells the story of the titular Bess, a women from Liverpool 8, looking back on her life as she prepares to return to her home city from London where she has been living with her son, Brian. Conflict arises over Bess’s wish to come back to Liverpool and Brian’s hatred for the city. Fate intervenes in the shape of a phone call announcing the critical illness of a close family member, and Brian finally agrees to accompany his mother. On the train from Euston to Lime Street, Bess mulls over her early life, beginning a flashback which lasts for most of the novel, and covers her life from childhood to the narrative present.
Bess: Now That I Have Found the Words depicts the lives and traumas of members of Liverpool’s black community from the 1950s through to the 1980s. During the beginning of the novel, time passes at an almost jarring rate – but then this is a novel that covers some serious historical ground. It’s an extensive tale that introduces many vibrant characters and communities and spans decades. Bess recalls her early life, from innocent au pair to a middle class family, to call girl frequenting the local clubs, through to a rebirth in consciousness following the Toxteth Riots of ’81.
Historically and socially it’s a rich, interesting and clever story. I began Googling the Toxeth Riots, wanting to know more, and I stumbled across some poignant footage, photography and verbal accounts. Thomas’s debut certainly informs, inspires and moves in equal measure.
However, at times the narrative feels long-winded which could have something to do with the technique of recollection. I subscribe to the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of thought when it comes to fiction but there were moments where I lost interest in Thomas’s insular narrative. This is most evident in the depiction of Bess’s son, Brian, who is quite one-dimensional. Some of the dialogue between mother and son seems to exist solely to drive the narrative forward – or as a method to reveal events integral to the story – rather than a believable interaction between two people who have a fraught relationship and a traumatic history.
This is a real shame because Thomas’s authorial strengths lie in her ability to notice the small details and describe them beautifully – scents, colour, a look, a feeling – and I wish she’d employed this consistently throughout the novel. Instead of remembered morsels of dialogue, I’d have much preferred descriptions of her noticing how other characters responded and her interpretation of that situation. When Thomas is showing, not telling, she is a beautiful storyteller with an important narrative about prejudice, love, time, memory and trauma.
Thomas creates a rich world through her words and there are some astoundingly beautiful images in the novel. In particular, Bess’s memories of her childhood home and her father stayed in my mind long after I’d put the book down. The tiny details, particularly around décor, clothing, movement and food, are incredibly visceral and human and it’s here – in the everyday, familiar and internal – that Thomas’s storytelling ability excels.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor