A story for all times
Poor Cow by Nell Dunn – Virgo Press 2013
Reviewed by Sally Shaw
Poor Cow, originally published in 1967 when I was 2 years old. Now aged 54 years old I write this review.
The edition I read is the Virgo is 40, 2013. A beautiful preface by Nell Dunn provides the background to her writing. She speaks of her memories of Battersea of which much of Poor Cow is based. “I wrote Up the Junction and Poor Cow when I was still young enough to believe I was immortal. Life and thrills were never going to end. Now, reading these books I remember the excitement of escaping my unpeopled background to the energy of the city. I hope these books capture my time there – when the day began around six, eating fresh rolls on the way to work, and often ended after midnight kissing somewhere forbidden, someone forbidden. Nell Dunn 2013”
Poor Cow is Joy’s story. Her story, a young mother to baby Jonny, a wife to Tom, girlfriend to Dave. Tom and Dave are friends and work together – as thieves. Tom is sent to prison and as Dave lives with Joy and Tom, Joy finds tenderness in Dave. When Dave is sent to prison for twelve years Joy is alone with Jonny. She moves in with her Auntie Emm and continues her search for herself, life and what is it all about or is this it. But it’s not only this, can she learn to love her son? Is there a place in the world for people like her?
The story may appear straight forward in its raw voice of Joy. However Dunn writes in Joy’s voice through letters she sends to Dave. These, Dunn writes as Joy with spelling errors and turns of phrases which provide a true insight to Joy’s emotions and thoughts. The writing moves to the third person viewpoint to tell the story and this demonstrates yet another dimension to Joy. Dunn is a master of detail, of poignant moments, look out for the one between Joy and Jonny when he is about three years old. It is magical.
“Outside in the street a young woman passed pushing a pram, a fag hanging from her lip. ‘Now I look like that.’ She ate the dark-brown cottage pie, mixing the mash in with her fork, a great relieving warmth filled her stomach and the sweet tea lifted her spirits. Above her head an ad with a lot of golden girls in bathing suits read COME ALIVE. YOU’RE IN THE PEPSI GENERATION!”
Poor Cow I would place it alongside The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros the reason – both books are composite novels, each vignette a stand alone story with its own title and yet when read as one a magic happens and a puzzle worked out or not – both Dunn and Cisneros do not hide the realities of life and yet they open up possibilities.
Poor Cow is a story of the 1960’s and of now, because of it’s subject – that of growing up and learning.
On a personal level, Nell Dunn and Sandra Cisneros for me are the masters I know I can learn from. Finding their books has been inspiring and magical for me.