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  • Writer's pictureIan Ayris

SPIRIT BURNS by Tina Jackson - a review

The Blurb

Madge didn’t mean to kill her best friend, but what happens when the only choices you get to make are bad ones?

Following the interwoven fates of three women and set in the North of England at the turn of the 20th century, Spirit Burns is a spell-binding tale that leads the reader behind the curtains of vaudeville theatre and into gin palaces, sweat-shops, séance cabinets, and the secret world of suffragette arsonists.

Meet Madge - factory hand, gang member, and good-time girl. Then there’s Ellen, who wants to burn the existing order to the ground, and Stella, sold into show-life as a young girl and forced to trade off her looks and her talent to survive.

We’re drawn into places where women are overlooked and their bodies exploited. Places where bad things happen. Places where people want revenge. Places where people – people like Madge, who only wanted to have a laugh – are haunted by what they did, and what was done to them.

Roll up! Roll up! Enter a world where the boundaries between the living and the dead are blurred, and the ones who get caught in between get to tell their stories.

The Opening

Bitch has only gone and locked me in the cabinet.

'That'll teach you to mind you Ps and Qs. Just you bear in mind that I am the medium and you are merely an emanation. Without me you do not have a voice. So if you want to exercise it' - and at this point I could tell she was really having fun - "you should remember there is only so much flannel people will put up with.'

The Review

So, where do I start? Well, what I'd like to do - what I intend to do - is start this book all over again and savour every moment.

Seriously, this book is incredible. And it's all there in that opening - the struggle for a voice, for freedom itself - it's all there. Talk about thematic writing. Blimey.

And the story is so tight, the characters so vivid, the place and time - well I felt like if I looked out the window I would see the grimy streets of the north of England of the book and if I opened it I would be suffocated with the smell of the poverty and despair so powerfully written on every page.

The story itself is about three women - arguably four - whose lives intertwine in ways none of them would choose or predict. These are the days of the Suffragettes, specifically, the Women's Social and Political Union - a militant arm set up by Emmeline Pankhurst. I'm ashamed to admit, all I knew about the Suffragette movement was the name of Emmeline Pankhurst - the woman synonymous with the movement - and the fact one of the Suffragettes threw themselves in front of the King's horse. Reading this book increased my shame. I had no idea what these women went through for the cause.

Jackson knows her stuff, having written a non-fiction book on the Suffragette movement, and she uses all her knowledge to bring to awful life the experiences - not just of the Suffragettes - but of all women of the era. I say all women because although much of the book focuses on the degredation women faced at this time, one of the central characters - Ellen - is a woman born into wealth and privilege - a woman whose life is similarly ruled by men, in her case her father.

The book is structured in a way that each of the three women - two of whom are spirits looking back at their life on earth - and the third, Madge, living life in the present, are presented in alternate chapters. Sometimes one of the women gets a little more, but the stories are entwined so beautifully, the effect is seamless. The seamless element being they are all women experiencing the awfulness of their lives at the hands of men - and, sometimes, other women.

This is a tough read in places - particularly the forced feeding of the Suffragette hunger strikers. There is a ruggedness and a beauty in Jackson's writing that is incredibly hard to pull off. And the voice - or should I say voices - well that's a masterclass on how to bring characters to life.

I read Jackson's The Beloved Children last year and was utterly blown away, describing it as 'a reading experience the like of which I have never known' - full review here:

Spirit Burns is even better.

I just want to give you a flavour of the prose, an idea of how good this book really is.

Here's a little extract:

'And when everyone in the room was looking at her, Maria began to sing. Quietly, softly, dressed in her everyday clothes, almost as if she was singing to her plants and her cats in the garden.

"As I was going over, the Cork and Kerry Mountains," she sang, in a voice like cracked silver, so entrancing that I leaned forward to catch each syllable as they fell like raindrops into air scented with beer fumes and pipe tobacco and made it clean again.'

And there it is again - that metaphor: '... to catch each syllable as they fell like raindrops into the air scented with beer fumes and pipe tobacco and made clean again.'

This book is essential reading in these troubled days of ours. From the experiences my daughter has had as a fifteen year old in secondary school and the recent high profile cases of misogyny, I honestly believe this book - and books like it - should be a part of the school curriculum.

As a society, we still have much to learn.

Spirit Burns is available from Fahrenheit Press in all formats here:

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