Isabel Ashdown’s first novel, Glasshopper, won her the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition, was hailed by the Observer as one of “Best Debuts of 2009” and was one of the Evening Standard‘s “Best Books of the Year.” It’s a title that’s been on my I Really Should Get Round to Read These list for a long time and while I still haven’t got round to it, I have had the pleasure of reading Ashdown’s new book, Hurry Up and Wait.
“It’s more than twenty years since Sarah Ribbons last set foot inside her old high school, a crumbling Victorian-built comprehensive on the south coast of England. Now, as she prepares for her school reunion, 39-year-old Sarah has to face up to the truth of what really happened back in the summer of 1986.
August 1985: Sarah celebrates her fifteenth birthday in the back garden of a suburban seaside house she shares with her aging father. As she embarks on her fifth and final year at Selton High School for Girls Sarah’s main focus is on her erratic friendships with Tina and Kate; her closest allies one moment, her fiercest opponents the next as they compete for the attention of the new boy, Dante. When her father is unexpectedly taken ill, Sarah is sent to stay with Kate’s family in nearby Amber Chalks. Kate’s youthful parents welcome her into the comfort of their liberal family home, where the girls can eat off trays while watching TV in Kate’s bedroom. They’ve never been closer – until a few days into her stay, events take a sinister turn, and Sarah knows that nothing will ever be the same again.”
I’m ten years out of school – ten years this month, eek! – but I still have the odd dream/nightmare that when the sun rises, I have to push myself out of bed, pull on an itchy purple wool uniform, trudge off to my least favorite place on earth and count down the minutes until three-thirty when I can leave again. When I read books like Hurry Up and Wait (or Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, or Cuckoo by Julia Crouch) that uncomfortable, crawly-skin feeling descends and I am transported right back to a time when your best friend yesterday mightn’t be the same one you have tomorrow, and you mightn’t really like either of them anyway. (It took me a few years to fully extricate myself from my marriage-of-convenience school friends and I remember, when I first made true friends purely by choice, thinking, These people are amazing! I actually would choose to spend time with them, and they don’t annoy me at all! Is this what it’s supposed to be like?!) Of course we don’t know any better, and most of us emerged unscathed from our relationships with school “friends” we don’t actually like. But what might happen if we didn’t?
In Hurry Up and Wait, Ashdown explores that very notion through the relationships between three school friends: Sarah, Kate and Tina, the alliances and animosity within them changing like the wind. It’s acutely observed and utterly realistic – every scene, down to the cruel taunting of their teachers and Sarah’s struggle between wanting to impress her friend and not disappoint her father, rings true. Set in a small town and played out among adolescents (and therefore, characters without enough life experience to have perspective), there is also a feeling almost of claustrophobia, a sense that this is the only world there is and will ever be.
If I had one criticism it would be that due to the nature of the novel’s timeline (it starts and ends at the school reunion; the main part of the novel is set back in Sarah’s school days), the impact of the novel’s climax felt softened slightly. Ashdown does an excellent job of generating a sense of dark foreboding – the book’s tension comes from the reader knowing where Sarah is headed even though Sarah herself does not – but I felt the emotional punch at the end could have been even bigger if it wasn’t for the book’s structure.
I consider this only a minor annoyance though; it didn’t affect my reading experience. I can still say I really enjoyed the book. Recommended.