Monday 20 February 2023

Review by Sally Shaw of "Imagine Living" by Deborah Morgan


Imagine Living is the sequel to Deborah Morgan’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Disappearing Home. Imagine Living continues Robyn’s story of growing up in Liverpool, where life is difficult and at times dangerous. 

I’m drawn to the photograph on the cover. It’s a black and white photograph, taken by Rob Bremner, Liverpool, circa 1980. Rob is a British documentary photographer, who, in this photograph, has perfectly captured a whole era. In the forefront is a young woman, her overcoat too big, her handbag guarded on her knee as she writes in a notebook. I know the young woman is Robyn and I want to discover how she is doing. I also like the format of the book. It is slightly bigger than an A5 diary and it feels familiar to me. Being the same format as Disappearing Home it is welcoming and inviting. The layout of the pages and short chapters create comfortable reading, uncrowded and relaxed. 

The first chapter, I recognise Robyn’s voice: ‘If words could eat other words, then hope would be the word to eat despair. HOPE. A word that for years had protected me from myself: from thinking too much about everything lost, and everything I could still lose. The word slid across my lips, its sound full of light. I breathed in its warmth, soft as feathers under a pigeon sky.’ Deborah Morgan’s poetic words allow Robyn to express her strength and awareness that her life can get better, but at the same time she’s scared. I like the reference to pigeons, recalling the importance of Robyn sitting with Nan down the Pier Head, pigeons at their feet as they ate their cheese butties.

Robyn lives with her nan as her mum has moved to Edinburgh with her new boyfriend and Robyn has started work. I join Robyn on the bus into Liverpool, deep in thought, trying to make sense of herself. She’s two weeks into her government scheme at a bakery, Waterford’s. Along with this change her Nan is waiting to go into hospital and Robyn is worried. As I read, I recall being sixteen: Robyn’s voice and inner being has been written with the wonder and fear of a teenager in 1980s Britain. 

Robyn takes me on her journey. A voyage of growing, forming relationships, decoding personalities and life, while searching for the meaning of Home. Throughout this journey Robyn meets a band of characters: some offer help, provide insight and encouragement, others are dangerous. I found the characters to be believable and of their time. Deborah Morgan has the ability to create important characters like Norm and Claudia. Through meeting Norm, Robyn learns there is the possibility of a person other than Nan wanting to care for her while demanding nothing. Norm demonstrates the many dimensions of being human. He illustrates that life experiences provide choice. Norm carries a burden of loss, yet it hasn’t made him bitter. Claudia enables Robyn to see herself and understand her worth, while prompting her quest to find her real dad. 

Waterford’s bakery provides Robyn with an anchor during her roughest time. Maud, Stella and Dot work at the bakery. The carry-ons in the workplace provide an education for Robyn, on the differing pathways in life and men. These characters are written with humour and a real sense of place.  

My favourite bond was that between Robyn and Claudia, as I felt she was the one friend that Robyn longed to keep, and the moment she realised Claudia liked her was beautiful: '"‘Why don’t I try and get Phil to cover for me next week?" "Okay, yes I’d like that." "I’ll meet you at the station, say half ten?" I pick up the painting and the tape for Norm. "Okay, see you." Claudia was taking the day off to be with me!"'  

Imagine Living will take the reader on an odyssey. It explores the reality of what Home means, and how it is not always found purely in bricks and mortar. Morgan uncovers how friendships form between differing generations, gender and circumstance. Robyn discovers that loss doesn’t always mean the end. That the ability to reflect and consider the past, present, future and self will enable her to find what Home is and begin to live. I absolutely loved the novel, and I think Imagine Living would make a wonderful film.

About the reviewer
Sally Shaw has an MA Creative Writing from the University of Leicester.  She writes short stories and is currently working on her novel based in 1950s Liverpool. She sometimes writes poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, her own childhood memories, and is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan, Liz Berry and Emily Dickinson. She has had short stories and poetry published in various online publications, including The Ink Pantry and AnotherNorth and in a ebook anthology Tales from Garden Street (Comma Press Short Story Course book 2019). Sally lives in the countryside with her partner, dog, and bantam. Twitter: @SallySh24367017

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