Book reviews, Crime/mystery/noir

Walking the Lights by Deborah Andrews

Walking The Lights is the debut novel from Deborah Andrews.

It was shortlisted for the Not the Booker Prize 2016 and selected for New Writing North’s 2017 Read Regional campaign.

Book and Brew reviewer Rachel Smith took a look. Let’s find out what she thought.

Walking the Lights

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

Recently graduated, young actor Maddie lives the slacker life in mid-90s Glasgow with deadbeat boyfriend Mike. Estranged from her mother due to a violent step-dad, most of the young couple’s meagre resources go on drink and drugs. Maddie and some friends harbour hopes of putting on their own production of The Tempest. As she moves from one low-paid jobbing acting role to another, and from the abusive relationship with Mike to talented artist Alex, can Maddie confront the past and find a way of living in the present?

Walking the Lights perfectly evokes 90s Britain and those living on the margins, whilst others prosper. This is a compelling study of one young woman learning the life of an actor, as she explores how to live life, negotiating the self-destructive temptations of young adulthood.

What’s good about it?

Deborah Andrews is a seasoned writer. Before embarking on her first novel, she had written plenty of plays, short stories and poems. In Walking the Lights her prose is, for the most part, clean and direct. There’s a sense of movement and a dramatist’s focus on dialogue that helps bring scenes to life.

The plot is simple, meaning the book is a quick and easy read. It focuses on a group of characters caught in the post-uni phase, trying to work out what to do with their lives. The sense of confusion is evident even if it’s not directly described. The characters are making huge decisions about what to do, who to love and how to live in the world, but they’re still struggling to make toast that isn’t burnt. Confusion soon spirals into hopelessness and despair, and any glimmers of hope are soon extinguished.

Shakepeare’s The Tempest becomes key to the novel’s plot. By including references and quotes throughout, Andrews is able to lift us out of the scruffy drudgery of the characters’ daily lives and inject some much-needed poetry.

Andrews’ central character Maddie is believable and, by using free indirect speech, the author allows us to observe her while also giving us access to her thoughts. The description of Maddie’s acting experiences is particularly well-rendered, giving an insight into how it feels to move in and out of character.

In fact, the most memorable scenes are those where Maddie and her friends take on minor acting roles to fund their lifestyle. Whether harrowing, embarrassing or downright ridiculous, these scenes are where Andrews really shines.

What’s not so good about it?

 Scenes describing Maddie’s party drug lifestyle are laboured and Andrews relies too heavily on jargon to set the scene. Some pages heave with drug-related lingo or references to specific songs in an attempt to evoke a specific atmosphere or era. Where in a film it might work, on the page it often feels contrived.

In contrast, the details of Maddie’s past suffering are left vague and they too sometimes feel cliched. Constant references to her violent step-father Rab are designed to make the reader feel sorry for her, but without substance they in fact make her a less sympathetic character.

One of the challenges Andrews has set herself is that many of the characters around Maddie – Mike in particular – are lacklustre and uninspiring, so it’s tricky to write about them in a way that isn’t. Much of the book seems to pass in scenes of smoking, drug taking and snoozing; while it might be realistic it makes for lethargic reading.

Overall, Walking the Lights is a readable depiction of a life full of hurt, disappointment and confusion. It’s a tale of missed opportunities, but unfortunately Andrews herself missed an opportunity to create something with really bite.

Feature pic credit: Chroniclelive.

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