1962. Twenty-year-old hairdresser, Vivien Epstein has left Manchester for London following the death of her father. She’s looking for a man, twenty-four-year-old Jack Fox who visited her father a few days before he died.
They told each other things they had never told anyone else. She said that she felt ashamed for not remembering much about Mum. How for years after Mum’s death she would occasionally wake in the night to the sounds of Dad’s muffled sobs, but didn’t know if she should go to him. And in an embarrassed voice, she admitted that she had always been troubled by her flat chest and non-existent hips, and couldn’t bear how easily her fair, papery skin bruised.
In turn, Jack told her that he was a twin but his brother had died five days after he was born. He had once watched his school friends taunt a girl in a wheelchair until she broke down and cried, but he hadn’t intervened or stopped them. It took him a while to admit that he did love his dad, but loving his mum came far more easily.
When Jack leaves, he promises to come back for Vivien but following the death of her father, she decides it’s time to start again, to rebuild her life somewhere else.
Vivien finds herself lodgings with Nettie Levy in Hackney and a job at Oscar’s salon in Soho. When Vivien goes to the salon to mention her previous boss’ name in the hope they’ll take her on, Barb, who runs the place, asks her to cut the hair of a friend of hers, Steve.
Vivien gathered up tufts of hair and nodded to herself a couple of times. He couldn’t accuse her of taking the job lightly. Her focus was intense. She tapered his hair at the back, then snipped away at the sides, the tip of her tongue poking out between her teeth. When she worked her way round to the front, Stevie could finally work out she wasn’t wearing a ring.
Stevie’s desperate to be a professional musician and soon, he’s desperate to be Vivien’s boyfriend too.
But Vivien’s more interested in seeing Jack again, although that’s proving more problematic than expected; when she arrives at the house she thought he was lodging in, the landlady tells her he’s ‘long gone’.
Her search for Jack leads her to Sid Klein, one of her father’s oldest friends. She visits him and passes on photographs of the 43 Group – a group her father and Sid were part of following the end of the Second World War – ‘…when the scores of men and women, mostly ex-servicemen, who had united to run fascists off the streets had turned into thousands’.
Fascism is on the rise again, Colin Jordan’s established the National Socialist Movement and has taken to speaking in the streets, often on the same days as Oswald Mosley. The 62 Group has formed to protest each of these rallies. Vivien joins them on a day Jordan’s speaking in Trafalgar Square hoping she’ll see Jack there. Not long after Colin Jordan takes the stage, things become hostile.
Jordan shouted into his microphone, ‘Hitler was right – ‘
The crown booed and clapped.
‘Our real enemy is the Jew –‘
Now people were going crazy. Vivien’s hand leaped to her mouth. A female protestor holding up a star was being dragged along by two policemen. Her handbag was torn from her and tossed into the air. Davy punched someone in the face, pulled back his fist and punched the same person again.
And then she spots Jack, jumping down from the back of a truck, but things aren’t as she expected.
Ridley Road follows the stories of Vivien, Jack and Stevie whose paths cross many times in many different ways. It’s also the story of the 62 Group and their fight to end fascism in the U.K.
Bloom’s narration moves skilfully between a number of the key characters, allowing us access to different thoughts and points-of-view. This, along with the vivid drawing of the characters and the unflinching portraits of the violence perpetrated by the National Socialist Movement are the strengths of the novel. Tension is high throughout and although there are moments that are difficult to read, the narrative drive keeps you turning the pages.
My proof copy of Ridley Road says it’s ‘perfect’ for fans of four key female novelists. Of those named, I’d say it’s definitely the sort of book Maggie O’Farrell fans would enjoy – the 60s setting and the theme of family recalled The Hand That First Held Mine – (only O’Farrell can write in that lyrical, almost dream-like prose she conjures, though) and it very much reminded me of Sadie Jones’ first two novels.
Ridley Road is an accomplished debut and I look forward to reading more of Jo Bloom’s work in the future.
Thanks to W&N for the proof copy.