The idea of a novel exploring the relationship between a trafficked Russian sex-worker and a gentle young security guard who catches her shoplifting sounds risky. It’s the kind of glittery rescue narrative that if poorly handled could make for a fairly unpalatable read.
But from the deft fingertips of Kerry Hudson, author of the award-winning Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, comes a second novel so sweetly pitched and dexterously structured that any such concerns seem, in retrospect, completely absurd.
Hudson knits together the disparate lives of Alena and Dave, a troubled couple who find commonality in their gut-wrenching loneliness. Both dealing with dark and twisted pasts, they enjoy comfort in one another’s tentative company – almost as if working the other out provides a moment’s relief from their respective realities. It’s a relationship hanging on tenterhooks.
Lured to England by her mother’s oldest friend, Alena is fast submerged in a thickly veiled London underworld, where she’s forced into a brutal pattern of rape, threats and violence. Hudson writes her backstory with unflinching detail, layering her sparky central character in folds of horrifying experience. The scenarios are unnervingly believable and thus all the more difficult to stomach.
Dave’s story, on the other hand, seems a nip less devastating. Having moved above a Hackney Kebab shop after life on a Roehampton estate comes to a difficult end, his is an existence of dull routine and pipe dreams of escape. He’s kind, handsome and would do anything for the lost, vulnerable girl he’s come to share his bed with. Though, always assuring himself of his own good nature, there are surprises in store.
In contrast with the heavy subject matter, the prose is clean and delicate – elevated by the author’s acute observations of the nuances in everyday city-life. Of an afternoon in the Dalston flat that Dave and Alena inhabit, she writes: “The windows were all open, letting in a soup of early-evening Hackney air: dirty pavement, exhaust fumes, kebab meat.” It’s real and romantically grim.
Thirst is an accomplished, if grey, portrait of two characters who might be anyone walking past on the street, sharing a quiet drink in the pub, or hiding in the corner of a gallery cafe. With uncompromising concern for literature’s underexplored people, Hudson’s work is an education. It’s quaint, multi-dimensional and damn tough to swallow. Don’t miss a word she writes.
Thirst is published by Chatto & Windus. RRP: £12.99. ISBN: 9780701188689