Everyone says that the grass is always greener on the other side, and for six-year-old Dido that old saying proved to be true in more ways than one when she stole into the garden of her new neighbours and found what she had been looking for… a ‘normal’ family.
Welcome to the first novel for fully-fledged adults from Joanna Nadin, an author who has made her name with scores of books for children and young adults, not least the bestselling Rachel Riley diaries and the award-winning Penny Dreadful series.
Here she turns her sharp eye for a child’s view of the world into a gloriously funny, affectionate and heartbreaking coming-of-age odyssey which explores family, friendship and an extraordinary mother-daughter relationship with wit, warmth and wisdom.
Written in the form of a confessional to Edie, her unconventional but now dying mother, three decades of Dido’s turbulent life and loves pour out in a colourful confetti of secrets, revelations and stark admissions as she tries to make sense of a relationship that has been ‘a tangle of secrets and lies, of second guesses’ and ‘half-formed hunches.’
As Edie Jones lies in a bed on the fourteenth floor of a Cambridge hospital, her daughter Dido tells her the story of their lives together, the ‘scenes that shaped our path,’ starting with the day that changed everything around 30 years ago.
It was 1976 and Edie, a ‘swearing, cigarette-smoking slip of a mother’ to Dido, had inherited a ramshackle, red-brick semi in Saffron Walden, Essex, enabling them to leave behind (albeit reluctantly for Edie) their overcrowded hippy squat in London.
On the very same day, precocious, avid reader Dido stumbled into their neighbours’ garden and met young Tom Trevelyan, his sister, Harriet (‘Harry’) and their middle-class parents, Angela and David.
The encounter was Dido’s light bulb moment, her awakening to the fact that not all families were chaotic like hers and in that instant she fell in love, not just with handsome, smiling Tom but ‘with the whole scene: the house, the garden, the magazine perfection of it. And I want very badly to be in this picture.’
The Trevelyans were exactly the kind of family Dido wanted… they lived in Narnia, Neverland, Wonderland, places she had read and dreamed about, a world of ‘rules and boundaries’ which she would later discover is called ‘normal.’ And if there’s one thing Edie doesn’t do, it’s normal.
As the years go by and the children grow up, the lives of Edie, Dido and the Trevelyans become inextricably bound up but one thing doesn’t change, as Dido learns the hard way… the irrepressible Edie can never, ever be ‘normal.’
Their life together has been ‘a fairy tale. An enchanted-wood, gingerbread-house, handsome-prince fairy tale.’ And ultimately, they are ‘the queens of the story. We are the Queens of Bloody Everything.’
Beautifully written, and packed with laugh-out-loud humour, exquisite home truths and life lessons, The Queen of Bloody Everything poses questions about the nature of family and belonging, and comes up with some intriguing answers.
The very young Dido’s comically caustic innocence has echoes of Jeanette Winterson’s groundbreaking coming-of-age novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit as she struggles to understand and appreciate the complexities of her deeply unconventional mother.
Essentially a journey of self-discovery for Dido, there is anger frustration, fear and regret hidden between the lines of this memoir, but there is also the ‘gossamer thread’ connecting Dido and Edie which, despite its fragility, ‘seems forged of an element so unbreakable it could form a wall to block munitions.’
Because, ultimately, Dido’s story is also Edie’s story, the mother playing an ever-present role in her daughter’s life and her influence ‘reaching across years and oceans’ as Dido learns that wanting to be different to her mother does not mean she must stop loving her.
Poignant, full of nostalgic period detail, and exhilaratingly entertaining, The Queen of Bloody Everything cannot fail to capture hearts.
(Pan, paperback, £7.99)