BOOK REVIEW: Guest by SJ Bradley

How quickly the present becomes the past, or rather, how quickly things date: reading Guest by SJ Bradley brings forth some chuckles when remembering MySpace and password-activated internet time in your local library.

(Do you remember MySpace, by the way? Do you remember you could add a tiled background of a puppy or your favourite pop star, and most irritatingly, how you could add a song to start when someone clicked on your profile? I remember clicking onto some friend’s profile only to have some barrage of heavy metal blasting from tinny speakers and giving away that I wasn’t actually converting my Excel spreadsheet into a line graph as directed by my IT teacher – of whom there was only one in the school because IT had just been added to the curriculum, and involved, predominantly, surfing the World Wide Web.)

Guest is full of the pleasures of the recent past. Living in an era of tumultuous technological and political change one feels curiously nostalgic for the vision of life laid out in SJ Bradley’s Guest, suddenly the noughties seem miles behind us. Suddenly the trials and errors of the Blairite years seem nothing but a precursor to the madness and nihilism of pre-Brexit Britain and Trumped Up America, all teetering on the edge of nuclear oblivion, but alas let’s save all that for another review.

For now, let’s go back to the noughties, imagine Foot and Mouth has just swept the countryside, 9/11 has fixed itself permanently in public consciousness, Bush and Blair are about to embark on a Middle-Eastern killing spree, most people have a Yahoo email account (if any at all), the charts are full of such gems as Daniel Bedingfield and S Club 7 (god help us), and Samhain is breaking into a new squat in Leeds.

Samhain is a young and carefree young man. He is looking to looking to live the life he wants to live, unhindered by the constraints put on him by convention. His lives a life of sleeping bags on dirty floors, of parties, of travel and of music. At the beginning of Guest, he and two friends have found a huge, disused hotel to stay in, all by themselves. It all seems to be going well until a couple of things interrupt his carefree way of life. First out of the hat, is the fact that his hitherto unknown father was probably an undercover policeman infiltrating the green movement, and second, is him becoming aware that he has fathered a child. These revelations are the main bent of the book, from here we follow an essentially irresponsible man try to face up to his responsibilities. The book follows Samhain coming to terms with two things that essentially clash with his identity: he has a sense of shame in being fathered by a policeman because of the anti-authoritarian philosophy he and his friends espouse. And while he is angry and bitter that he has not been told of his daughter does not quite realise that his transient life style would have to change in order for him to be a proper father. We follow Sam on tour, in fights, between girlfriends and between homes, trying to figure out what this all means for his life.

So, the text runs us through an enjoyable montage of group meetings, gigs, bedroom floors and memories of protest camps. There is a nice moment on the floor of a squat where Sam is stunned by the shiny, colour-screened, flip-phone that a bandmate produces. Overall, the reader becomes fully submerged in the life-style of Sam and his contemporaries – you can feel the thick layer of grim over everything in the house and hear the feedback of the raw music of the bands. This is an enjoyable element of the book: the imagery is consistent and in keeping with the setting and era that the book sits in.

The text runs smoothly and with little complication, there are some more fragmentary prose that occurs as Samhain is waking from dreams, which is enjoyable and mixes up the relatively grounded nature of the narration. Bradley also introduces a number of metaphors and comparable situations for both the main character and the reader to consider. First, Samhaim discovers a pregnant cat that produces a litter around the same time he becomes aware that he is a father, and second, in meeting a half-brother becomes jealous of the steady family life that his brother had lead. Both are rather large pointing sticks to the fact of the responsibilities Sam must fulfil as a father.

As a reader, I found the story flowed well and smoothly, it is not a book that particularly raises in tempo or in action, as essentially it is a kind of anarchist coming-of-age story. In fact, it is a surprisingly quiet story that revolves around one man’s decisions. I think those who like it most will be those who most emphasise with the character. One might feel conflicted on how and whether he should change his life style to accommodate other people, or if he should stay true to his political and social ideals. I would say this makes the book a different read for different people, but my irritation at how long it takes Sam to realise his own faults is surely testament to an engaging character he is. Others may feel more sympathetic to his confusion and reluctance to grow up and join the boring world of long-term renting and childcare support. Either way, it is an enjoyable read and an insight into the lives of the anti-capitalist squatters that, as far as I can recall, I have not seen laid out in fiction.

Guest also has the pleasure of being produced by the fabulous Dead Ink Books who publish unknown and experimental fiction and they have dressed this book beautifully with a magical cover by Michael Lacey. Though, I wouldn’t put this book down as experimental fiction, I would say it fits in well with their mantra of ‘publishing the underground’. Guest does show us something of the underground, protest orientated lifestyle and all gives us a little noughties nostalgia along the way (God I miss my 32.10).

SJ Bradley

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SJ Bradley is a writer from Leeds and one of the organisers behind Fictions of Every Kind. She won the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the Gladstone Writers in Residency Award. Her debut novel, Brick Mother, was published by Dead Ink in 2014.

Guest was published by published by Dead Ink on 27th July 2017.

You can purchase a copy of Guest from Foyles, Waterstones, or The Book Depository:

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To discover more about Dead Ink click here

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Review by Jessica Gregory

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