Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe
(Wrecking Ball Press, paperback, 182 pages. Out now and available here.)
Review by Anna Wood
There was a period in the mid 80s when estates and the working classes were getting something like their due in mainstream culture. Some of them were fairly fancy estates, like Brookside, but there were rough ones as well, like the one in Rita, Sue and Bob Too. There was interracial gay working class love in My Beautiful Laundrette, there was Scouse-Russian romance that leapt over cold-war barriers in Letter To Brezhnev, there was an abused but undimmed, bawdy and brilliant young woman starring in Wish You Were Here. Plus I was listening to The Smiths, so I was watching A Taste Of Honey and Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, and the news was full of the miners’ strike and Greenham Common. I’m not saying it was halcyon days, I’m just suggesting that the working classes, the not-white-straight-and-middle-classes, were more visible. They were not romanticised or made comic – and they were not ignored, which is what they’ve mainly been for the past 20 years or so.
Some of the results of that ignorance have been at the forefront of our minds recently. The fire at Grenfell and the 96 deaths at Hillsborough were surely caused by a refusal to listen to people and a refusal to care about people, especially people who were not middle class enough. And meantime there are countless less mindboggling horrifying ways, more insidious and unnoticed ways, in which people are simply not seen and not heard.
Adelle Stripe sees things and hears things. Her debut novel, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, is an elegant, loving, powerful book about the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar. Rita, Sue and Bob Too was originally a play written by Dunbar, based on her life and the lives of people she knew on and around the Butterworth Estate in Bradford. Her first play, The Arbor, and her third, Shirley, also depicted the lives of people on Butterworth. Stripe has gathered, documented and thoroughly researched Dunbar’s life (there’s a five-page bibliography in this book), but she has made a novel rather than an autobiography. In a preface she describes, in unashamedly foggy and almost contradictory terms, how Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is “a work of fiction and an alternative version of historic events… Real people rub shoulders with fictional characters; some utter words from letters and scripts, others are gleaned from occasional references, newspaper cuttings, hearsay or fractured memory. It is not the truth and exists purely within the realm of speculation.”
This decision means that Stripe can really animate Dunbar’s character – she brings beautifully judged detail and insight through diary extracts, fictional reconstruction and beautiful, funny, clear dialogue. She is that wonderful thing, a generous writer who gives her subject time and space, and who respects Dunbar – and us – enough to resist telling us what to think about any of it. We read about Dunbar’s family life, about her work, her relationships, and we are always right there with her, never on-high looking at this messy, complicated life that frequently delighted the tabloids.
This is a love story of sorts, I think: it is at once loving and respectful to treat someone this way, to get close to them through both research and imagination, and also to understand that you cannot really know them. There is a kinship here that reminds me of Carol Morley’s work in her extraordinary 2012 film Dreams of a Life, about a young woman called Joyce Vincent who died alone in north London and was left undiscovered for years. In Stripe’s book, as in Morley’s film, a life is recreated out of years of meticulous, thoughtful research combined with an extraordinary amount of love.
The book opens with a prologue, a claustrophobic depiction of Dunbar’s last day: waking up with a throbbing headache, a messy gloomy house, an unfinished play, a visit to her sister’s house, a walk to the pub, the headache, the headache, the headache. The 999 call made by the pub landlady at the end of the prologue might be the only thing in the book that we know about and Andrea didn’t. The fact that she died from a brain haemorrhage, alone in that pub toilet, at the age of 29, is not in the book. Stripe tells us what happened at the very end of Dunbar’s life, and then she gets on with what happened before. She inhabits Dunbar, another woman who saw things and heard things. Another woman who did some things and wrote brilliantly about them, using a lot of truth and a bit of imagination.
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is available to buy in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.00.