At 3.04 p.m. on a hot, sticky day in June, Bess finds out she’s pregnant.
She could tell her social worker Henry, but he’s useless.
She should tell her foster mother, Lisa, but she won’t understand.
She really ought to tell Boy, but she hasn’t spoken to him in weeks.
Bess knows more than anyone that love doesn’t come without conditions.
But this isn’t a love story…
Sometimes it’s easy to fall between the cracks…
There are not many characters in fiction that come from the care system. There are a wide range who are cared for other than by their birth parents – from the classics such as Dickens’ orphaned Pip in Great Expectations and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In modern times, we might turn to Clark Kent, Harry Potter and River Cartwright in the Slough House series – but these are informal family arrangements – and it is a deeply problematic pattern that being orphaned (whether literally or figuraitvely) correlated to some form of superpower…
There are others such as Oliver Twist who are in a system, but a very different system to that which we would call today’s care system. Tracy Beaker is perhaps the most obvious. And now, Kirsty Capes’ Bess.
Bess has been in the same foster care placement with Lisa (who insisted on being called “Mum”) and Rory (who was just “Rory”) since she was four. She is now fifteen and finishing her GCSEs. That is a deeply unusual situation! Lisa and Rory had not considered themselves able to have children, and therefore fostered Bess, but perhaps the unexpected pregnancy with Clarissa inhibited them from adopting her…
Bess finds her live in the town of Shepperton limited, claustrophobic and dreams of being a photographer; her best friend, Eshal, is one of the few non-white people in the town and her her own problems facing both racism from without and the prospect of an arranged marriage from within her family. In many ways, what both Bess and Esh fear is to become a stereotype and a statistic, whether it be the Bangladeshi character submitting to an arranged marriage, or the child in care having a teenage pregnancy.
Capes creates the world of Bess really effectively, bound by the limits of a small town, and overshadowed by the film studio. Although we first meet Bess as she first tests for her pregnancy, we then flashback to see how she met Boy and how their relationship developed from cool aloofness to friendship to a sexual relationship. Capes was great at recreating that excitement Bess felt at the thought and sight of Boy initially – the visceral nervousness and anticipation felt very real to me.
Bess’ response to the discovery of her pregnancy is equally powerful: her lack of trust and faith in Lisa and Rory, her dismissal of her social worker who seemed ineffectual, her fear of Boy’s reaction, her unwillingness to confide in Eshal… When finally she did attempt to face and deal with the situation – oh my god! – Capes really showed her power as a writer. The chapters with the Vitamin C, gin and hot bath, written from the skewed perspective of Bess, were both stomach-turning and heart-wrenching.
For me, the flaw in the novel was Capes’ occasional but somewhat heavy-handed explicit exploration of the issues surrounding the care system. The rules about hugging and saying ‘I love you’ and collecting the receipts for presents was enough: I don’t think I needed to be told explicitly that the care system commodified the nature of love. I also found that the depiction of Lisa was a little clumsy: as a father of adopted children and natural children, to read about someone so overtly favouring the natural child over the child in care was jarring. It happens, I am sure, but Lisa was so obvious – and again Capes was a little heavy-handed in managing that, introducing a whole character simply for the benefit of pointing out what was already there…
This is a great read, despite those quibbles: Bess’ voice is powerful and vibrant and authentic, and as always, it is so important to our society that everyone in it can see more people like themselves. She is no superhero, but just as flawed and challenged as anyone else – and, like everyone else, Bess was capable of muddling her way to a solution that ulitmately worked for her.
What I Liked
- Bess’s voice, which was authentic and real and powerful
- Bess’s friendship with Eshal and relationship with Clarissa – Capes is very good at the female friendships and support
- The setting – again, Capes’ creation of the town, safe but restricting was fantastic. Description of place was a real strength.
- Representation of care leavers.
What Could Have Been Different
- A little less heavy handed in the overt commentary on the care system
- A little less