“The Queen Of Bloody Everything” is an astonishingly good novel that tells the story of Dido Jones and her relationship with Edie, her unconventional mother.
Daughter of a flamboyant, convention-challenging. larger-than-life mother and absent any knowledge of her father, Dido has no greater desire from the age of six to thirteen than to be normal and in a “real” family. She satisfies this desire initially by adopting the family next door, weaving herself into their lives so thoroughly that her presence is taken for granted.
Starting with six-year-old Dido moving from a London squat to an Essex village in the exceptionally hot summer of 1976 and carrying on into Dido’s adult years, “The Queen Of Bloody Everything” captures the language and attitudes of the times perfectly, displaying them to through the eyes of a child and the adult remembering being that child.
The storytelling is very accessible despite following a clever and complex structure. It starts in the present day, with Dido talking to her hospitalised mother, and reveals itself through a series of recollections of Dido’s life in chronological order, interspersed with commentary in the here and now.
It is a riveting read, filled with strong, believable characters, realistic dialogue that is crammed with life and truth and scenes that capture moments of triumph, deep cringe-worthy embarrassment, abuse and loss and sometimes, a little bit of hope.
Dido’s understanding of herself and her mother is deeply shaped by her reading and the gap between the worlds she reads about and the life she’s lived. In the beginning, the chapters have names that refer to children’s books: “Heidi” or “Third Year At Mallory Towers”. Later, the literary signposting of the chapters becomes more adult with titles like “The Bell Jar” or “Brighton Rock”.
My heart was captured by the characters but what really intoxicated me was Joanna Nadin’s ability to help me to see the same thing from multiple points of view at the same time: how I felt then, how I feel now, what I failed to see then, what I wished I could do now and so on. She embraces the complexity of real life where questions have more than one answer and narratives overlay one another over time like layers of lacquer on our lives.
Both the ambition and the craft of this approach are shown on from the first page of the book. It starts:
So how shall I begin? With Once upon a time, maybe. The tropes of fairy tale are here after all – a locked door, a widower, a wicked stepmother, or a twisted version of one at least. But those words are loaded, tied; they demand a happily ever after to close our story, and I’m not sure there is one, not yet.
Besides, Cinderella was never your scene: ‘Don’t bank on a handsome prince, Dido,’ you would sneer through the cigarette smoke that trailed permanently in your wake; that cloaked you, tracked you, like a cartoon cloud in Bugs Bunny. Like Pig-Pen’s flies. ‘If they bother to show up it’ll be late, and then they’ll only beg or borrow. Or worse.’ And the twelve-year-old me would roll her eyes , like the girls in books did, and think, Those are your princes, Mother, not mine. And I’m not you.
But I am, aren’t I? Though it’s taken me four decades – half a lifetime – to admit it.
I fell in love with the tone of this writing from the first page and stayed faithful to it to the last.
“The Queen Of Bloody Everything” was intense, sometimes funny often painful but always felt like the truth to me. The ending is perhaps a little more hopeful than one finds in real life but even that felt like a benison of sorts to the characters and the reader.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version of “The Queen Of Bloody Everything”. Kelly Hotten’s narration is perfect. You can hear a sample of it below.
I liked the book so much that, having listened to it happily, I went out and bought I a hardback copy so I can keep it to hand.