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Let’s talk about class: Four memoirs paint a shocking picture of how society treats the vulnerable

Reviews: Learning to Think by Tracy King; Newborn by Kerry Hudson; Strong Female Character by Fern Brady and Slum Boy by Juano Diaz

Newborn: Running away, Breaking from the past, Building a new family
Author: Kerry Hudson
ISBN-13: 978-1784744991
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Guideline Price: £18.99
Learning to Think
Author: Tracy King
ISBN-13: 978-0857527431
Publisher: Doubleday
Guideline Price: £16.99
Strong Female Character
Author: Fern Brady
ISBN-13: 978-1914240478
Publisher: Brazen
Guideline Price: £10.99
Slum Boy
Author: Juano Diaz
ISBN-13: 978-1914240829
Publisher: Brazen
Guideline Price: £20

The memoir genre can be a mixed bag, ranging from the literary to the celebrity tell-all. There are pitfalls to both. In the former, we’re often presented with a novelistic, omniscient narrator whose powers of recollection stretch credibility. In the latter, craft can come second to the stranger-than-fiction plot, with a compelling central character orbited by a paper-thin supporting cast.

There is also a genre-wide tendency to front-load the narrative with a “dramatic scene”, and then backtrack through the full story at length, repeating key details. But then, there are the many rewards the genre offers: intimacy, honesty and a chance to inhabit perspectives that are too often ignored or silenced. These four memoirs intersect on a number of points – addiction, poverty, mental health issues – and paint a shocking picture of contemporary society and its attitudes to the vulnerable.

Each generation has to clear its own space for motherhood, and Kerry Hudson’s Newborn picks up where her memoir Lowborn left off: a woman on a project to overcome the trauma of her own childhood negotiates the pitfalls of parenting in the Covid era. Hudson settles down with her partner and begins to long for a baby; he is less sure, and it takes the couple a long time to conceive.

A move to Prague just as Covid hits and Hudson becomes pregnant provides both joys and challenges, with Hudson carefully examining her reactions to the pressures parenthood places on her relationship with her partner in light of her own sad past. Further strain comes in the form of a terrifying autoimmune condition and the language and cultural barriers Hudson faces while seeking treatment.


Her reflections on her own childhood experiences with a mentally ill mother are heartbreaking, with one section on Sesame Street particularly affecting: “as soon as I watch that 1980s Big Bird, my Big Bird, walk carefully across the screen, I start crying. I sit myself up on my knees with my hands twisted up under my chin, my face pushed up to the screen. Not a position I’ve ever adopted as an adult but, when I see Peter looking over at me, I realise it was exactly the pose I always sat in on those cold, lonely, frightening mornings as I willed myself into the warmth and colour, consistency and love of Sesame Street.”

The book’s subtitle is perhaps overegging it a little in its attempts to tell the reader exactly what to expect (a common theme in the genre), but this is an absorbing read, written in Hudson’s fluent, companionable prose. As the title suggests, there is a lot of ground covered here – this seems to be typical of Hudson’s at-times-exciting, at-times-chaotic life – but the twists and turns demonstrate important and sometimes all-too-typical experiences.

The sections detailing Hudson’s having to give herself over to one doctor’s (perhaps arbitrary) decisions on diagnosis and treatment demonstrate the medical challenges women regularly face: “I don’t know what will happen. I only know that this is my life now. That my doctor appears to care more about his fragile ego than my health.”

All of these events perhaps leave little room for wider reflection on how Hudson’s experiences in the medical setting in Prague and at home speak to more universal experiences of women, and the peace she finds in embracing middle-class life as a middle ground between her working-class background and her partner’s more privileged upbringing, but this is an absorbing and entertaining read.

Learning to Think explodes stereotypes of working-class homogeneity while acknowledging the double standards and discrimination that knock vulnerable families down again and again

Learning to Think by science communicator Tracy King explores a similar hinterland to Hudson’s but from a very different angle. While King grew up in a working-class estate outside Birmingham in an artistic if eccentric family, her father struggled with alcoholism and her mother with agoraphobia. While King’s home life is creative and loving, the family is caught in a poverty trap and they experience disaster after disaster, including her father’s untimely death.

This is a portrait of a sensitive group of people utterly failed by the legal and social services system. King writes vividly, painting her family life with colour and pathos: “We were a contradiction. Computer-rich but money poor. Very happy and very troubled. Unsustainably fragile, but a solid, unbreakable family unit, held together by love.”

When King’s older sister Emily is sent by social services to a special school 150 miles away, the family decide on a whim to drive down to collect her. They’re refused access and leave without Emily ever knowing they had come. It’s a tragic picture of a family flailing within a broken system. “My parents and the tall man came back into the room and he explained that if we took Emily it would be kidnapping because my parents didn’t have custody of her anymore.”

The latter chapters deal with King’s attempts to learn the truth about her father’s death, coinciding with a burgeoning curiosity about the act of thinking that she experiences after liberating herself from religious dogma. This is where the title comes in; and it’s a fascinating and transformative process that offers King some catharsis.

“A story cannot be contained by truth. It will be taken by everyone with even a passing curiosity, and pulled, stretched, torn into a different shape to fit an agenda or bias or fear. It becomes currency, whether true or not.”

Learning to Think explodes stereotypes of working-class homogeneity while acknowledging the double standards and discrimination that knock vulnerable families down again and again.

Brady’s honestly is bracing, as is her delving into the complexities of engaging with online autistic communities, which can be welcoming but also judgmental

Strong Female Character by Fern Brady tells a similar story of a difficult working-class upbringing, with the added twist of the author’s undiagnosed autism, and her struggles in a world that refuses to understand her. Brady is fascinating on the internalisation of prejudice that makes late diagnosis particularly difficult; when, after years of articulately asking for help, she finally gets a correct diagnosis, she breaks down to her boyfriend: “They have special jewellery! That they ... chew and things. And you’re supposed to be okay with it and start wearing wacky, brightly coloured clothing or something”.

Brady’s honestly is bracing, as is her delving into the complexities of engaging with online autistic communities, which can be welcoming but also (as with any online community) judgmental.

Brady’s descriptions of her “disordered communication”, to use a term often applied to the difficulties those on the ASD spectrum experience, are moving and, as befits her career as a comedian, very funny. She’s a clear and direct writer, and this book serves as a good primer for those coming to the subject for the first time; she references sources, alludes to books that helped her and tangles with the difficult questions with sincerity.

She’s particularly strong on the lack of up-to-date tools for autism diagnosis that recognise how it presents differently in women, and how this has affected women for generations. On being told that she can’t be autistic, as she has a boyfriend, she says: “I now know that the diagnostic criteria for autism was almost entirely based on Hans Asperger’s research into autistic males – and funnily enough, none of them had boyfriends because they were eight-year-old boys in pre-war Vienna.”

Structurally, the book’s plot is glossed in the first chapter and then revisited in more detail in those that follow; this potentially deflates some of the books later discoveries. The repeated comments on people’s physical appearances and intelligence sometimes seem a little off-key in a book that otherwise seeks to challenge stereotypes. Overall though, this is an important story that will speak to many women of Brady’s generation, and will prove a useful guide for those wanting to support friends and family members by gaining more knowledge on the subject.

These messy lives are not easily regulated in a system which offers few supports, but occasionally, Diaz suggests, love is enough to get us through

Slumboy by Juano Diaz is the most literary of these memoirs in its form, moving seamlessly from Diaz’s chaotic preschool years of neglect at the hands of his mother, through his time at a children’s home, and on to his subsequent adoption by a family with Roma Gypsy heritage, where he struggles to find his place as a gay man in a family with traditional Catholic and Roma values.

Details of Diaz’s early memories of his mother are meticulously rendered: “I hold on tight and cry hysterically as the woman pulls us apart, prising my hands and fingers from Mummy’s cardigan. She carries me away, followed by a policeman. Mummy will not look at me as I plead, hands stretched out towards her.”

While questions about a four-year-old’s ability to recall these and other interactions in such precise detail might niggle, it’s these literary flourishes that add heft to the narrative. Beautifully written and evocative, Diaz’s story is a prolonged meditation on the longing of a child deprived of physical affection, and a hymn to the importance of memory itself.

Accounts of time spent with his adoptive Gypsy grandmother are beautifully drawn, as Diaz struggles with repeated apparitions of a frightening faceless woman: “Suddenly I see the woman’s head. She has red hair – it’s the kind of cut you would get if someone put a bowl over your head and cut around it – but her face is blurred, featureless.” Only his grandmother, with her supernatural cures, seems to understand the importance of listening to these trauma-induced intrusive thoughts, and not dismissing them out of hand.

Just as things seem to be stabilising for Diaz in his university years, a family tragedy occurs, landing him back into grief and homelessness. A reunification with his birth mother and sister provides some insight into his past, and a new understanding of his mother’s struggles with alcohol, undiagnosed autism and borderline personality disorder, but the memoir eschews easy resolutions.

These messy lives are not easily regulated in a system which offers few supports, but occasionally, Diaz suggests, love is enough to get us through. On his mother’s death bed he tells her, “I will carry your spirit” – an act of generosity that seems to set him free: “I am severing the spiritual umbilical cord that binds me to her and breaking the cycle.”