Thursday 15 December 2022

Review by Alan McCormick of "Without Warning and Only Sometimes: Scenes from an Unpredictable Childhood" by Kit de Waal

Kit De Waal’s narration is clear-eyed and unsentimental, devoid of self-pity, with an extraordinary gift of recall and eye for detail borne from a harsh childhood, where survival was often found in the shadows, dreaming, observing, trying to make sense of the goings on in an often unpredictable, joyless home, attempting to understand her family’s place in the world. 

Kit’s Mom is from Wexford and her Dad from St. Kitts. Being both Irish and Caribbean in nineteen-sixties-and-seventies Britain meant enduring endemic prejudice and everyday acts of racism – being called ‘Little Miss Fuzzy Wuzzy’ by a teacher or ‘wog’ and ‘blackie’ by a spiteful classmate – singled out in turn for being either Irish or black or mixed-race.  Even Kit’s grandmothers, Nan and Black Nana, never accept the racial partner choices made by their children, and, worse, Kit’s parents seem to distrust and reject each other’s cultures, and barely connect or show affection to each other. 

Kit’s Dad, Arthur, is mostly controlled (controlling), off-handily critical and barely present, living through cricket (he’s good), and detective and cowboy films on television. He springs momentarily to life to corral his willing kids (desperate for a bit of fun) to help bake Christmas cakes to give as gifts or make Caribbean food at weekends whilst Mom, Sheila, is at work. He puts on a good face around relatives and friends from home, fondly reminiscing a romanticised past. There is little money around and what money there is, is rarely spent on enough food and clothing for Kit and her siblings. Whilst Sheila tries to save, Arthur would rather use his money to keep up appearances by buying a smart car, good shoes for himself, sending extravagant gifts back home and building a house for his fantastical return to St Kitts. 

Sheila is overwrought and overworked (doing many jobs, cleaning, child-minding, caring, and running the home). She’s exhausted and distracted, needy and swamping when showing unexpected moments of generosity or affection (the sudden purchase of art supplies is accompanied by her manic desperation for the kids to instantly use and enjoy them), her feelings dissipated in caring for vulnerable strangers outside the home. She does rise to meet a crisis, caring in response to Kit’s dramatic childhood accidents, but becomes increasingly frustrated as time passes, saving milk bottles to throw at the outhouse wall, escaping into a forlorn, nostalgic reverie of singalong sentimental songs. 

And then there’s Jehovah which means no Christmas or birthday presents! Kit and her siblings learn to endure, and (ultimately) reject the weekly services at Kingdom Hall with their boring, guilt-tripping sermons, by making up irreverent names for the congregation. But Mom is on a mission to spread the word and in one hilarious, acutely observed scene, she again tries to lay traps (the increased frequency of natural disasters) to try and entice and convert her wily Catholic mother, who is having none of it: ‘It’s a push-me-pull-you of a dance,’ Kit observes. ‘As old as time, the child who was never the favourite, the mother who couldn’t love enough. They lock in with their clumsy footsteps, out of step to the music, each one trying to lead, stepping on toes.’

Affection and joy may arrive in the home ‘without warning and only sometimes’ for Kit and her siblings but it can also come from outside – Dad’s cousin Uncle Mike is ‘loud, gruff, rough, fun’ and the kids love being around him in his chaotic bedsit. Kit and her siblings also learn to find their own fun, to stick together to survive.

Everyone in the family wants to escape and change their lives, and, whilst Dad and Mom are thwarted, Kit finds salvation, the possibility of a better life away from home, first with friends, and then in the company of characters from books. She devours the classics recommended to her, the watcher becoming a reader, and later the writer who will let us into her life and tell her story – a multi-layered story about race and class, of hope and survival. It’s a wonderful, wise, and life-enhancing book that will stay with me for a long time.

About the reviewer
Alan McCormick lives in Wicklow. He’s a trustee with  InterAct Stroke Support who read fiction and poetry to stroke patients. Alan’s writing can be read in current issues of The Stinging Fly, Southword and Exacting Clam; and online at 3:AM Magazine, Fictive Dream, Dead Drunk Dublin, Mono, Words for the Wild and Époque Press. His story, 'Firestarter,' came second in this year’s RTÉ short story competition. For further information, see here

You can read more about Without Warning and Only Sometimes, by Kit de Waal, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

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