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Ghost Signs Book Review (by Stu Hennigan)

Ghost Signs Book Review Header

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Ghost Signs, Stu Hennigan’s debut publication, is a non-fiction book set in Leeds during the first UK lockdown of 2020, following the arrival of COVID-19.

Ordinarily a librarian, Hennigan volunteered to be a delivery driver for the local council, providing fresh food for families shielding or economically impacted by the lockdown. This took him to some of the most impoverished places in the entire country.

A desperately sad read, Ghost Signs is an eye-opening account of poverty in the 5th biggest economy in the world, whilst highlighting the crippling human cost of an absence of sensible domestic social policies.

It’s also a shocking indictment of the lack of vision from 12 years of successive Conservative governments.

It’s March 2020. And with much of the UK in lockdown due to rising COVID-19 infections, a Leeds City Council van trundles through the darkened streets of the pandemic-hit city.

One of the poorest places in the UK, 24% of Leeds’ neighbourhoods are in poverty. Furthermore, 29% of the city’s children under the age of 16 are living in absolute poverty*.

In response to the pandemic, the council has mobilised the Food Distribution Centre to ensure that the extremely vulnerable and their families have access to food, drink, and sanitary products. Over the course of the first three to four months of the initial lockdown, Hennigan chronicles his experiences within the local community, revealing the harsh impact of both the pandemic and years of austerity-led economic policies.

If social conditions were bad prior to COVID-19, it’s far worse now. On the doorstep, Hennigan witnesses emaciated 30-year-olds who haven’t eaten in days, socially anxious individuals fearful of answering the door, and victims of crippling drug addictions.

Days and weeks blur into one another, the same issues cropping up on the doorstep. Sallow-faced parents delighted to see a food package, their children celebrating the arrival of the delivery drivers. The volume of people unable to support themselves is stark, and tremendously upsetting.

One particular exchange with an eight-year-old girl stands out:

“Is that FOOD? she asks when she sees the bags
I nod.
ALL of it?
I nod again.
For US? She points to herself, eyes wide.
Yep, all for you.
YAYTHANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU!...

… I’ve got tears streaming down my face on the way back to the van… …her reaction to the food is so sad that it’s unbearable. Months later, I still won’t be able to recall the event without welling up. It’s a moment I’ll remember as long as I live.”

Ghost Signs, Stu Hennigan (2022)

And this is just one man’s story in one city. 

Multiply this narrative to the numerous volunteers at Leeds’ Food Distribution Centre – then scale it up further to encompass the entirety of the UK – and it paints a truly desolate picture.

*Absolute poverty is defined by the United Nations as “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.”

The Road to Armley Gaol

Ghost Signs has drawn favourable comparisons with George Orwell’s excellent The Road to Wigan Pier. This isn’t a surprise – both texts are investigations into poverty in the North of England, and very effective at what they do.

However, there is one key difference. Whereas Orwell’s text feels more journalistic and theoretical, Ghost Signs is more a memoir of a frontline worker’s direct experiences. Orwell is an outsider looking in whilst Hennigan is a local person stepping up to serve his community in a time of need.

Starving children, elderly people in tears due to loneliness, and individuals with crippling depression fearful to leave their own homes… these are tangible stories about real people.

The authenticity of Hennigan’s writing style, and of course the dreadful conditions that people live in, are what makes this book so difficult to read in parts. But they’re also the reason that Ghost Signs needs to be a widely read book.

The Human Casualties of the Pandemic

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic. 

Times journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott published the seminal work, Failures of State. An excoriation of the inaction of government policy, the text examines policy-making during the pandemic, as well as the PR and Comms that came out of Number 10, Downing Street. It’s well worth a read.

But if Failures of State was the post-mortem of the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghost Signs is the funeral pyre. The former details policy failures, whilst the latter chronicles the human consequences of Whitehall’s prevarication and harmful years of austerity.

Still, there are moments of affirming humanity. Smalltalk on the doorstep and brief moments of brilliantly droll Northern humour in the face of adversity punctuate the misery. And the fact that a volunteer service like the one Hennigan took part in can be set up and actioned so quickly, speaks volumes about the ethical character of the nation.

Conclusion

Ghost Signs is less a book about the pandemic, and more a commentary on successive governments’ inability (or unwillingness) to tackle absolute poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s a glimpse into the palimpsest that is the UK’s socio-economic landscape. One where working people bear the brunt of adversity, whether it’s a pandemic or a bruising cost of living crisis, whilst the millstone of economic inequality weighs ever more heavy as the months and years go by.

Though a highly uncomfortable read, Ghost Signs is a very well written book. It’s an honest, hard-hitting contribution to public discourse and a stark wake-up call for the electorate.

4/5

Ghost Signs is available in paperback (affiliate link) at bookshop.org, or directly from the publisher at Bluemoose Books.

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Edgware Road Book Review (by Yasmin Khan)

Edgware Road Book Review

Edgware Road, Yasmin Khan’s debut fiction novel, is a tale about the lives of three individuals, spanning the streets of London to the Asian subcontinent.

Khan’s prose is wonderful – a real pleasure to read – and yet the novel isn’t quite able to facilitate the scope and ambition of its plot and characters.

Still, despite its flaws, Edgware Road is a good novel and well worth your time.

One of the three protagonists, Khalid is a Pakistani immigrant working as a croupier at Hugh Hefner’s infamous London Playboy Club. Shuffling cards by night, Khalid has big plans for his partner and daughter – dreams of Caribbean islands, diamonds and flash cars. However, despite knowing that the house always wins, Khalid has a gambling problem, staking his family’s future happiness at the expense of the present.

Meanwhile Alia is searching for clues following the disappearance of her father. In an endeavour to discover the truth, Alia’s travels take her from exploring the streets of London to connecting with distant relatives in Pakistan. A daughter of a post-partition Pakistani family now living in England, her complex heritage forms a significant part of her narrative.

Elsewhere, politician Arthur Denby seeks to unveil a political conspiracy surrounding the mysterious BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International). Based on a real historical scandal of the ‘80s in Britain, Khan uses Denby’s perspective to explore the political underworld of lobbying, sweetheart deals, and financial fraud.

These three narrative threads are interwoven into a compelling structure with some solid characters, each perspective alternating between 1987 and 2003.

It’s a great way to write a novel, especially one with complex family drama and political intrigue, keeping the reader guessing whilst adding flourishes of detail to the emerging plot.

However...

Despite the pleasing prose, interesting characters, and smart structure, there are a few problems.

For a start, the novel feels far too short for the amount of plot and character development. 

At 300 pages, relating three perspectives across two separate periods of time, Khan can only dedicate roughly 50 pages per character, per time period to build character and write a satisfying plot.

And whilst this would be entirely possible with more economical prose, the magic behind Edgware Road is its brilliant writing style. It’s a real pleasure to read, which is why it’s frustrating that there isn’t more of it.

Of course, word count isn’t everything. A shorter book like The Sound Mirror uses similar techniques surrounding multiple perspectives in separate time periods with far greater success.

However, the key difference here is that there are a large number of narrative threads opened by Khan, including Khalid’s involvement with the BCCI, Alia’s relationship with her family in Pakistan, Denby’s troubled home life – just to name a handful. These plot moments, amongst others, do not feel fully explored.

Pacing is also an issue. The first third of the novel is well paced, but the rest, from the middle section through to the conclusion, feels rushed. Alia’s on-off relationship with her flatmate goes nowhere, and whilst Denby’s perspective is an interesting one, he often reads like an afterthought and never quite earns his place in the story.

What results is an ending that feels wholly unsatisfactory, with Edgware Road unable to give its characters the closure they deserve – and that’s a real shame.

Conclusion

Whilst Edgware Road is a flawed debut, it’s still worth a reader’s time, particularly for fans of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which explore similar themes of the immigrant experience in London.

Unfortunately, Edgware Road doesn’t reach the depth of those novels, but the prose is lovely, and the characters, whilst lacking the depth they deserve, are a delight. It’s just a tad frustrating that such potential has been squandered.

Still, keep an eye out for Yasmin Khan’s future books – she’s a talented writer.

3/5

Edgware Road is available in hardback at bookshop.org, with the paperback also available to pre-order.

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.