First of all, full disclosure: West Camel is the editor of my translations of Beton Rouge and Blue Night at Orenda Books, who also publish Attend, and I was sent a PDF proof copy of by the publisher Karen a for review. This is my absolutely honest opinion of the book, though, and West submitted it to Karen under a pseudonym to avoid any potential nepotism.
So, to the book. Attend rather defies categorisation. A romantic, gangster novel with a touch of magical realism and a nod to Armistead Maupin. How’s that? As the cover image suggests, there are three strands to the story: Anne, Sam and Deborah.
Anne is a recovering heroin addict who is trying to rebuild her life and her family having got clean and escaped her abusive ex. Sam is a young gay man who has moved to London in search of a new life. They are both looking for new beginnings in Deptford, which represents a homecoming for Anne and an escape for Sam. Here they meet and become friends with the enigmatic Deborah, who has lived here all her life. But can she really be over 100 years old, and unable to die, as she maintains?
This is a novel of contradictions: gritty, yet beautifully written; fantastical, yet down-to-earth; gripping and moving. I was instantly drawn in and could have read the book in a sitting if life and work hadn’t inconveniently intervened. There is brutal violence and touching romance, raw emotion and convincing characters, drugs, abuse, faith and the possibility of redemption. I felt for Anne, working through such a challenging situation and sometimes put in impossible positions by her family and best friend Kathleen. Sam’s relationship with gentle yet thuggish Derek also felt very real.
Yet it is Deborah who holds the whole thing together, telling stories, weaving spells and providing the literal and figurative guiding thread that brings things to a conclusion. I loved the way needlework runs through the book, and the firm grounding of its setting in Deptford.