I’m an MP, get me into print
Politician turned ‘I’m A Celebrity’ contestant writes Liverpool-Irish family saga
MP Nadine Dorries drew criticism in 2012 for going on the reality show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! The stereotypical Irish characters in her debut novel may draw some more: “Jerry was an Irishman. He might have been about to have sex for the first time in almost two years, he might have been angry and have lost all reason, but he wasn’t going to spill the Guinness.” Photograph: PA
The much-maligned saga genre, made famous by Catherine Cookson and focusing on the hard-knock lives of working-class families in the north of England, is set to gain a new proponent this week as MP turned I’m A Celebrity contestant Nadine Dorries publishes her first novel.
The Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire’s The Four Streets is set in 1950s Liverpool, in a “tight-knit Irish Catholic community” where “there is almost nothing that a cup of tea and a good chat won’t sort out” but where “a betrayal at the very heart” of residents’ lives comes to light. Complete with deaths, romances, an irrepressible urchin called Little Paddy – and a cameo for a funeral director named Clegg – the book was signed by publisher Head of Zeus in a six-figure deal last September involving further sagas from Dorries. Head of Zeus describes the MP as “stunningly talented”.
“From page one I knew this was by a real storyteller – it completely grabbed me,” said publisher Rosie de Courcy, adding that Dorries’ writing “has the most incredible charm and warmth – and humour”.
“The saga is not a genre which calls for literary conceits and complications, but depends on a down-to-earth and from-the-heart quality. Nadine – like Maeve Binchy and Helen Forrester – has this in spades.”
The novel, out on April 10th, sees the MP take on the challenge of regional accents with gusto – “Jaysus, Kitty, someone has just walked over me grave, so they have” – ladling on the poverty and the overcrowding (“Between her nine children there were five pairs of shoes. Whoever’s turn it was for the shoes would play outside, or go to school that day”) and not worrying about offending with stereotypes: “Jerry was an Irishman. He might have been about to have sex for the first time in almost two years, he might have been angry and have lost all reason, but he wasn’t going to spill the Guinness.”
Dorries grew up in a working-class family in Liverpool, training as a nurse before becoming MP for Mid-Bedfordshire in 2005. The character Nellie Deane in The Four Streets is “very much based on her own grandmother”, said De Courcy.
The MP, who drew criticism in 2012 for going on the reality show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here , has said that she wrote the novel for fun between Commons votes. She has always, she told the Guardian via her publisher, loved the saga genre, starting out with Susan Howatch’s Penmarric – set in Cornwall and following the stories of feuding families from the Victorian era to the second World War – and Sins of the Fathers .
“Maybe I was yearning for the stability and continuity to be found in a family, community saga,” she said. “Since that time, each and every time I find myself in a bookshop, I realise that subconsciously, I am searching for another Penmarric and I am always frustrated not to find one. I could only ever dream and aspire to become even nearly as good a writer as Susan Howatch. However, I did realise that if I am searching, others may be too.”
Dorries’ fictional debut – which she promotes on her blog and her Facebook page – will be riding a wave of renewed interest in a genre which had until recently faded from popularity after a heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, when authors such as Cookson dominated the charts with stories of generations of heartbreak and hardship. The genre was nudged aside in the 1990s, when Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It helped launch the craze for misery memoirs. “They sort of gobbled up the readership,” said De Courcy, “and for a while sagas went quite quiet”.
But now, experts say, the huge popularity of television shows such as Call the Midwife – based on a real-life memoir of Jennifer Worth – and Downton Abbey have prompted a resurgence of interest in rags-to-riches tales of family struggles. The category of books into which saga falls has seen sales increase by about 18 per cent between 2011 and 2013, according to the Bookseller , while ebook retailer Kobo is reporting “incredibly strong” sales and “increased growth” in the genre. Publisher Orion, meanwhile, has sold more than 2.5 million copies of Worth’s tales about life as a midwife in the east end of London in the 1950s, it said, and is now in the bestseller charts with Letters to the Midwife , correspondence sent to Worth.
“When we study data around reader engagement with this genre, we find that readers of this type of book are highly engaged in a manner we don’t necessarily see across other categories. The success of Call the Midwife means we are also seeing strong sales for nostalgic memoir in the same vein and we don’t expect to see a decline in this genre anytime soon,” said Kobo’s director of merchandising Nathan Maharaj.
Tom Tivnan, features editor of the Bookseller , agreed that the readership for sagas had “opened up thanks to Call the Midwife ”, and was now appealing to “more, and younger, readers”. Dorries’ novel, Tivnan said, had a good chance of doing well. “You go on I’m a Celebrity and that brings with you a different kind of audience – I think she has a chance,” he said. – ( Guardian service)