Ironing by debut author Navajo proves that ordinary life can make a compelling subject for fiction, in the right hands.
Pluck any novel off a shelf in a book store, skim through the pages and you will most likely find a conventional story arc, where the protagonist is drawn into a world not of their choosing, and has to battle various antagonists to reach their goal.
It’s a standard formula that’s most authors daren’t go against.
Debut author Navajo, however, is not among them. This elusive writer has deliberately ripped up the rule book to provide a novella that is startlingly original and yet, in its subject matter, something we are all familiar with: real life.
Set the present day, in the East End of London, Ironing is an ultra-realistic story that is, perhaps, the closest a reader will ever get to the representation of normal existence as it is lived.
And as with real life, it is chaotic, not following any recognisable or reasoned structure. Things happen without prior notice; people appear and disappear randomly; every event is as significant, or insignificant, as the next, depending on whose perspective you’re looking from. There is no dramatic build up or foretelling on display. It just ‘is’.
Navajo achieves this singular literary effect by, essentially, stitching a series of unconnected short stories together to form a larger tapestry of everyday folk going about their everyday lives. Having started out as a short-story writer for an online blog, this is second nature to him.
The prose is shorn of any literary gilding to hide the stiches as one story swaps for another. One moment you are reading about an incident, or non-incident, with character ‘A’ and then without a break it’s straight on to character ‘B’s anecdote and so forth.
Everything commences with three girls getting on a bus to go to the dog races, where one of them, Emma, wants to pet a greyhound.
But then, as another passenger steps onto the bus, the focus of the novella moves completely to follow this new character while the girls and their journey are temporarily forgotten.
Sometimes we reach a satisfactory resolution with a particular character, but oftentimes we don’t, getting titbits of their lives before they simply disappear from the narrative.
Although this might sound like a bizarre idea, Navajo’s purpose is not so much to provide a fully-formed story with the conventional beginning, middle and end, but to serve up a slice of life. In that respect, it’s almost philosophical as much as literary.
In any case, it’s a refreshingly different take on the modern novel and absolutely on par with the fragmentary character of the real world.
It’s also in tune with today’s audiences, where our attention spans have shortened, largely thanks to the world of internet videos, and where we have become accustomed to big blockbuster dramas, such as Game of Thrones, killing off characters with no notice before unceremoniously taking the story elsewhere.
The author, Navajo, however, isn’t trying to replicate something like the Game of Thrones with Ironing.
His aim is give voice to the everyman or woman, typically ignored in literature, and to show that their hopes, dreams, successes and disasters have just as much right to be depicted.
With gritty and realistic language, he provides readers with an incredible spectacle that will at various times make you laugh, cry, cringe or gasp.
There’s plenty of good observational humour on display but this sits alongside the tragic and the downright shocking. In a world without any higher purpose or order, cruel things happen all the time, and Navajo is not afraid to present this unwelcome fact.
Admittedly, what Navajo has set out to do is both risky and challenging, but it does, in my view, work if you know what to expect (i.e. the unexpected).
Primarily I feel this is because Navajo has all the hallmarks of an excellent writer, with a keen eye for detail, setting, senses, and, most importantly, people.
This is coupled with a genuine curiosity about humanity and a more cerebral consideration of how people are influenced in their speech and actions by the environment they find themselves inhabiting.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s there was a literary trend towards the kitchen sink drama. Ironing is, in a sense, a spiritual successor, focused on the petty domestic dramas between families, friends and lovers that you might hear if you eavesdropped into strangers’ conversations.
Take this scene for instance, where the three girls — Royanda, Emma and Ginie – are mid-journey to the races.
“My mum says aubergines should be banned”, Emma announces to the upper floor of the red London bus. “Why?”, asks Royanda. “‘Cause they taste like shite but look beautiful”, Emma explains. “That’s no reason to ban them”, responds Ginie, “I like Aubergines”. “Aubergines and lamb is lovely, my Iranian friend used to make it and we all went round on Saturday afternoons to chat and eat, it was yummy, until she meet that creep from Finchley, took her away to damn North West London and I’ve not seen her since”, Mrs Winston interjects. “I don’t like them, they’re all slimy and nasty to eat”, Royanda agrees with Emma’s mum. “Exactly” says Emma. “They look great on the outside, nice shiny purple, smooth and curvaceous, a giant tear drop, they call out, ‘I’m so lovely and beautiful’, but they’re disgusting, dis..gust..ing”.
How unusual it is for a book to contain a scene that is so, well, normal… but all of the scenes are like this, crackling with energy despite saying hardly anything of depth.
The depth is there, however; it’s just that Navajo is working to a deeper narrative, excavating our mundane lives to bring up mini-treasures.
I must add that some of the scenes, particularly towards the end of the novella, are extremely dark. If you are more of a traditional reader then you will perhaps find these the most gripping.
For instance, there is a section where friends are just shooting the breeze when they are suddenly turned into emergency rescuers as a train derails:
They stand still, alert, terrified, confused, bewildered. The three slowly and increasingly hear the haunting sickening frantic horror-stricken sound of young voices. As the incoming cloud of sound engulfs them, they can discern sobs, howls, whimpering, bawling, screaming, shrill agonised screeching. The three run, run towards the cacophony of horror. The canopy of choking dust halts their progress as they are forced to stop, bend over and choke up phlegm permeated with age-old black.
There was no alarm before the train crashes; no foreshadowing that would lead us to expect this to happen. It’s all the more powerful, and utterly realistic, for that.
As far as the three girls go, they do serve as the frame for the story and they do get some form of closure at the novella’s close, but as with everything in this gem of a book, you will not be able to anticipate the outcome until it’s right at your feet.
In short, Ironing is an unusual, challenging work of experimental literature that would have got my thumbs up irrespective of whether it worked or not, just for the sheer audaciousness of the project.
As it happens, though, it does work and, at least for this reviewer, proved itself a worthy investment of time. Highly recommended. Ironing by Navajo is out now in paperback priced at £7.77. Visit www.Bookmarksbookshop.co.uk