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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Review

Apples by Richard Milward
Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23283-3
Ruby C Harrison

You’ve got to hand it to Richard Milward, nineteen year old author of ‘Apples;’ if I’d had my first novel published before leaving my teens I’d be well chuffed. But as for the novel itself, I can’t quite make my mind up.

Set in the gritty surroundings of Middlesbrough housing estate, the story follows Adam and Eve as they wander disastrously through their adolescence. Eve is a stereotypical beauty with Barbie doll proportions and the blonde hair to match. She likes to get mashed and laid in that order.

In the opening lines of the novel we find out her mum has got lung cancer and through her narration Milward suggests this is why she likes to get so munted. She doesn’t really seem to give that much of a damn though, telling us ‘we got a McDonalds the night my mam got lung cancer.’

Adam on the other hands is, in eve’s words ‘shy and supersensitive, the kind of boy who’d be perfect for you if only he wasn’t a fruitcake.’ Charming. Adam suffers from mild OCD, gets knocked around by his dad, has one friend known only as ‘the prick’ and is gagging to lose his cherry. Both these characters were people I went to school with, I think everyone would recognise them.

It is the non relationship between these two that forms the vague suggestion of a plotline. The rest is just a murky soup of hormones and ecstasy. Maybe I’m being too harsh, jealous perhaps of Milward’s book deal with Faber, but at points throughout the novel I couldn’t help thinking that any creatively minded adolescent could write a two hundred page book about going out on the lash, taking drugs and having sex.

His lurid descriptions of their nights out represent a substantial part of the book and include several of Eve’s vomiting sessions in full Technicolor glory. In fairness, they are well written and truthfully observed, although not always that entertaining; ‘we squashed past tracksuits and some shirts to seats near the back, drinking lagers and Smirnoffs and screaming in each other’s ears.’ It’s accurate sure, but worth five chapters of the stuff?

The separate voices and perspectives of the characters are distinctive and true to life, but I got the feeling the books length would be halved if the blow by blow accounts of their daily lives were at least shortened. The presence of the near pointless rambling sadly dilutes the strength of what otherwise is damn good writing.

It was only towards the middle of the book that I became reluctantly interested in the characters; would Adam and Eve jump into bed together and fall in love? It seemed unlikely. Would Eve’s mum survive the cancer that was eating away at her lungs? Eve seemed more fussed where her next E was coming from.

Milward has an obvious talent with words. Despite this gift for evoking the atmosphere and feeling of an underage night out when you’re off you’re rocker on ecstasy, the more meaningful aspects of the novel lack depth and resolution. Across the book as a whole Milward’s intention seems to gravitate towards shocking and educating the reader on the crazy life and happenings of the council estate instead of developing characters you could genuinely care for.

At its worst, the novel reads like ‘Shameless’’ evil sister. Their lives are more shocking, rawer. Take Claire for example, one of Eve’s gang, who wakes up after a party to find ‘one tit squeezed out my new bra and my jeans halfway down my thighs. I guessed there’d be all that sludge in there.’ Her casual acceptance of her rape is frightening and there is no thought or question of going to the police. Perhaps most shocking of all is Claire’s subsequent murder of the newborn baby that is the result. ‘Next time I get raped I’m going to have an abortion’ she says and that’s that. I began to question all the terrible things the author must have seen to be able to write such a book.

After reading up on Milward, trying to get some dirt on him – the jealousy is still there I’ll freely admit it – he annoyingly appears to be unpretentious and unspoiled by his success. Indeed there is little pretention in the book itself; he uses simple yet unusual language that marks his novel as different and redeems it despite its content. Having the guts to both admit to and describe the shocking everyday happenings in boro’ is pretty brave.

The quality of the novel derives from this, as the plot itself, despite the dramatic happenings along the way, appears at times to be going nowhere. Indeed there is no conclusive end, or capturing cliff-hanger. It was good to read a book written by a young person though; there is an unapologetic, rough sureness to his perspective and turn of phrase which I have rarely found in young adult fiction. Thinking back, I have maybe never read a voice like it.
He tells it like it is and has not forgotten the perfect, bittersweet agony of being young and wanting someone. ‘I was more interested in Eve,’ says Adam, adding ‘just laying eyes on her was like reaching enlightenment, or at least made me wee my pants.’ Brilliant.

For young people, I think it is cathartic to read novels like this, to feel that someone has felt the same, or grown up in a similar shitty environment. Novels like this should be essential reading for posh kids too, to make them realise the life they may have lived.

In terms of Milward himself, whilst reading the book I had a sense of his great potential as an iconoclastic new voice. The characters he has created work almost as a metaphor for all the things he saw growing up and it is clear he is filled with empathy for them. His drive to get published and achieve through these experiences gives the impression of someone intelligent, committed to his roots and well versed in all he describes. I admired him for this. It is not necessarily what he is saying, but how he writes it and it is this lexical gift which made his novel the centre of such critical acclaim.

I was also impressed by how well he entered the psyche of a teenage girls often messed up head. When she says ‘contrary to popular belief sometimes girls just want to have fun with their friends, not get hounded by idiots and nonces’ I almost laughed out loud; is Richard the only bloke under twenty five who has realised this?

His second, newly published novel, ‘Ten storey love song’ follows Bobby, an art student studying in north London. This, like ‘Apples’ closely follows Milward’s own life experiences; he too is studying art at Central St Martin’s. It is clear his work is centred largely on the autobiographical. Luckily for him, being published so young and with now two novels under his belt at the ripe old age of twenty two there is plenty of time and interest for him to develop his ideas away from his own experience. Who knows what he is capable of?

© Ruby C Harrison March 2009

Notorious (2009)
Ruby C Harrison
Okay, so its 5.45 on a slightly gray, miserable Wednesday. But it is also Orange Wednesday, and I’m off to the cinema with the lads.

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