Take Three Girls

John Gray discovers new writing from Tara West, Lesley Richardson and Tanya Ravenswater at Finaghy Library

It’s a full house in Finaghy Branch Library on a cold Monday night for Take Three Girls. Is their collective billing an allusion to the BBC television series of 1969 - 71 featuring three girls sharing a flat in swinging London? Nope. This is a straightforward reading by three women whose origins lie in Bangor and Newtownabbey.

It is very much an evening of new writing. Tara West’s Fodder was published by Blackstaff in 2002, but she is also testing us with new work, while Lesley Richardson and Tanya Ravenscroft are trying out their unpublished manuscripts.

Lesley Richardson’s Biddy Weirdo is about bullying, a topical enough theme. Her opening extract sets the scene ably enough. Biddy Weir is an eccentric loner, with amongst other things an obsessive interest in bird-droppings. She is picked on at primary school by a glamorous newcomer who rapidly enlists all others in a malicious hate campaign and hence becomes Biddy Weirdo.

Fast forward to dramatic scenes at an outdoor pursuits centre, with a touch of the gothic about it. Falcons fly round its battlements, and Biddy thinks she can fly too. I think this must be the all too melodramatic end of the story. No, apparently not; it's only the climax to part one so she lives to fight another day.

Tanya Ravenswater is nothing if not prolific with two novels in manuscript, Russian Dolls and Jacques, along with poems and prose. Perhaps she's trying to fit in too much on the night. From Russian Dolls we get an extract in which a harassed mother brings her hyperactive four year-old into a flower shop and, although he runs amok, the shopkeeper responds with ease and humour. It is well done but we don’t get the chance to peel back the layers implied by the title.

Jacques as an 11 year-old has lost both his Parisian parents and is brought back to England by his uncle. I think shades of the ‘wicked uncle’ syndrome here. He is however more chilling than a mere cliché as he advises his bereft nephew that ‘retrospection is a form of avoidable death’. There is a moving account of their final visit to the Paris flat when Jacques lingers over the contents and is allowed to take away virtually nothing.

Then a couple of poems. One about a bathing place on the muddy shores of Strangford Lough. Women and small children paddle in the ‘birthing pool’ while the men walk the dogs on the eel grass covered shore. Small scale but evokes place and circumstance well. Less substantial is one about a walk up a hill in Cheshire with a dog; landscape feel doesn’t suffice.

Tara West starts with a mock guilty confession; ‘I do use bad words’. This is a relief; I realise that the evening so far has been very middle Ulster with nothing to offend anyone. What next then? She opens with an extract from her already published Fodder. The young hero is searching for his ex-punk mother who has vanished. First stop is Paranoid Stuarty, the ice-cream man and seller of bootleg goods. Stuarty thinks he is being landed with another paternity suit. Expletives multiply. This is funny.

Poets are Eaten as a Delicacy in Japan is as yet unpublished but is almost worth it for the title alone. Tommie, the heroine, and her sister are confronted a nightmare; their mother is launching her raunchy autobiography. Tommie thinks that ‘matricide is not the worst thing.

It used to help me get to sleep thinking about it’. We laugh, though there is also a truth here about fraught relationships between mothers and daughters. I suspect that the poet who gets eaten is an Irish one who has hit the big time writing sexually explicit epics after deserting his wife for a younger model.

Again it's a send up, and that’s the trouble with readings of novels. You get fragments, and enough to say that Tara West has got off-the-wall wit and style. But I am assured that this novel has a serious purpose; that it is about Tommie’s awakening from depression. I’ll just have to wait for publication to find out whether gravitas emerges from behind the zany black humour.

These are very different writers then. There is no sense of the collective about Take Three Girls, let alone of even a covert feminist agenda. The common thread is that they are all represented by the Bangor-based Feldstein Agency. Cue a brief discussion on the possibilities of getting published. It is a forbidding scene; very difficult for fiction and worse for poetry. Yet all the women here have the insatiable urge to write.