Someone told me, ‘you’re like Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets The Pogues’
London-Irish writer Jess Kidd has delivered her second, 'genre-splicing' novel
Jess Kidd, author, pictured in St. Stephens Green, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Never let it be said that Jess Kidd hasn’t got a keen nose for the macabre.
“One of the things I’ve really wanted to do – this is pretty weird – is work in a funeral parlour,” she enthuses. “I wanted to write a sitcom based in one, but when I started looking, I couldn’t get a job. I even took the creative writing qualification off my CV, and told (funeral directors) I’d do work experience for them.”
Part of Kidd’s ease with death has much to do with her London-Irish upbringing, during which her Mayo-born mother would routinely drag her to funerals and wakes. “Death was never really hidden away like it was for some of my friends in London,” she recalls. “In fact, there was a kind of mundaneness to it. My mother was a great storyteller, and what was stark about her stories was that you never knew who was dead and who wasn’t.
“Coming from a big family, I was surrounded by extroverts so I would sit in the corner, writing all these stories and plays. Everything I wrote even as a small child was really morbid. In one play I write, all the cast died and then the narrator died.”
A young Irish girl in London accompanies her mother on visits to a dying woman in her Costa Short Story Award winning Dirty Litle Fishes.
Raised in London yet spending so many of her childhood summers on the west coast of Ireland (where she now hopes to relocate) has given Kidd a heightened sense of eerie romance about Ireland. Being between two worlds, she says, suits the mind of a writer perfectly.
“Writers kind of have this feeling that they want to be observers,” she says. “I think a lot of writers I’ve know seem slightly out of kilter with everything, and that can be the case when you’re between two worlds. It’s not a bad thing.”
It turns out that in this case, the child significantly explains the woman. Now publishing her second novel, The Hoarder, Kidd has already been on the receiving end of some interesting compliments. After the release of her jet-black debut Himself in 2016, one reviewer was moved to describe her as the “Heston Blumenthal of literature”.
“I loved that,” she smiles. “It had something to do with mixing ingredients that don’t necessarily work, but somehow do in the end. At an event in Cork last year, I met a lovely poet who said, ‘you’re like (Gabriel) Garcia Marquez meets The Pogues’.”
It’s certainly not an inaccurate descriptor. Himself was set in a fictional town in the Mayo hills in the 1970s, and opens with a shocking scene of a teenage mother battered to death in front of her infant son.
Her second novel, The Hoarder, is set in modern-day west London, with two Irish émigrés – spirited carer Maud Drennan and elderly hoarder Cathal Flood – at the heart of the action. Perhaps by dint of her London-Irish upbringing, Kidd has gotten the Irish argot impressively down pat. This, coupled with a penchant for bleak humour, occasional gore and dark psyches might put the reader in mind, tonally at least, of Martin McDonagh. And in The Hoarder, in which Drennan falls down a rabbit hole of intrigue, mystery and darkness in Flood’s sprawling, filthy mansion, a dose of comedy is helpful for sweetening the subject matter.
“I wanted to deal with the themes of bereavement and loss and grief, and injecting comedy into that is very useful,” observes Kidd. “A lot of the people doing the same profession as Maud – doctors, nurses, carers – are going to help and support people, but probably dealing with their own shit at the same time, like Maud. You have to use some comedy, and the more twisted, the better. I love books, too, where the rug is pulled right out from under me.”
Kidd had recently nursed her father in the final few months of his life, and had previously worked as a carer, specialising in acquired brain injury. Yet to fully bring Flood’s pungent lair to life (and bring it to life she does: the reader can smell the musty decay and stomach-churning animal waste right on the page), Kidd had to research the psychology of the hoarder.
“I spoke to a lot of people who were self-confessed hoarders and in treatment, but of course many of them wouldn’t let me in the house,” recalls Kidd. “With hoarding, it’s usually traced back to loss or grief: bereavement is a key stress trigger. People have lost so much that they cannot bear to lose any more. There’s a mentality that you can shore yourself up against any eventuality. Another type of hoarder doesn’t want to throw stuff out in case people go through their rubbish. With others, it can be traced back to a hard childhood with lots of deprivation.
“I think you’re also attracted to the things you’re most frightened of as a writer,” she adds. “I’m really frightened of clutter. I’ve been fortunate enough to lose my possessions twice in my lifetime. I had one relationship where I left all the stuff, and another where he left and took all the stuff.”
By turns spiteful, wounded, belligerent and likeable, Cathal Flood is a character readers aren’t likely to forget in a hurry. Woe betide the care worker who even thinks to address his mountains of clutter, the dozens of slumbering cats, the rat droppings and the greasy collections of plastic bags. He is prone to putting curses on Maud, wishing on her at one point “a barren womb, eating without shitting, sodomy by all of hell’s demons (simultaneously and one after each other), fierce constrictions of the throat, a relentless smouldering of the groin and an eternity on help with (her) eyes on fire”.
In using this tango of lightness and shade, Kidd’s first two novels resist categorisation. She is, by her own admission, a fan of “genre-splicing”. After dropping out of college (“I discovered boys, really”) to give birth to her daughter Eva, now 21, Kidd juggled day jobs with single motherhood. Eventually, she acquired an Open University degree, before being awarded a bursary to study a Masters, then a PhD, in creative writing. The bursary, she says, gave her the financial freedom to write more experimentally.
As to whether publishers – usually more risk-averse with their new signings than not – are open to multi-genre works of fiction, she adds: “I think a lot of publishers are probably looking for distinctive voices, and writers who want to build a long-term career and are prepared to slug it out.”
And prepared to slug it out, Kidd very much is. Her third novel – a female detective tale set in Victorian London – has already been completed, while a fourth novel is brewing. One thing Kidd has no problem with is coming up with myriad ideas.
“Not to be morbid, but one thing that motivates me is how much time we’ve got left,” she says. “I’ve just got all of (these ideas) arriving in my mind and it’s like, ‘I just want to get there’. Plus, I write so differently now to when I was in my twenties. I’m really curious to see how it will all go when I get older.”
The Hoarder by Jess Kidd is out now from Canongate