Agnes Owens has written several novels and short story collections, and her For the Love of Willie was short-listed for the 1998 Stakis Award. Her latest work, Bad Attitudes, is composed of two novellas. The eponymous first, and longest, of the two novellas primarily deals with the fate of a working-class family. It is a morbid story which features a huge cast of characters, most of which are thoroughly unsympathetic. At the same time, the story’s strength lies in its ability to capture recognisable elements of everyday life. Among others, we are presented to the lewd councillor, the nosy neighbour, the violent husband and the juvenile delinquent. The themes range from gossip and paranoia to bullying and self-preservation.
The second story, "Jen’s Party," is lighter and more humorous than the first. As with "Bad Attitudes," the main interest of the story lies in its depictions of domesticity. While "Bad Attitudes" is underpinned by dark currents of anger and violence, however, "Jen’s Party" is characterised by playfulness and a certain sense of joie de vivre. It tells the story of Jen, a teenage girl who wants to throw a party for her fourteenth birthday, hoping that this might boost her popularity. She soon regrets the whole endeavour, however, as she is assisted by her slightly deranged, shoplifting aunt Belle.
A basinful of washing
The story entitled "Bad Attitudes" opens with the fifteen-year-old Peter Dawson returning to the family’s old home, which is soon to be condemned. He is accompanied by his dog, the only being that seems to matter to young Peter. The only tenant left in the building is an odd neighbour, Shanky Devin, who refuses to move. Peter Dawson returns to the family’s new flat, and we are presented with a rich gallery of characters, such as Mrs Webb, the nosy neighbour, Tom Ashton, the sympathetic social worker, and Rita, the bullied mother. The story incorporates characteristics of various literary genres, moving from the socio-realistic drama to crime fiction. These various genres are juxtaposed in an effortless manner, and function as a counterweight to the routine and domesticity pervading themes and characters.
The relationships between the characters are governed by the "bad attitudes" referred to in the title. Although the story exclusively deals with interactions between characters, there is no true understanding or communication between any of them. The only real relationship appears to be the one between Peter and his dog, which we recognise as doomed from the first moment. What is more, the characters are selfish and self-centred to the extreme. On warning Peter that dogs are not allowed in the flats, Mrs Webb is pleased to note that he looks around startled and starts to keep it on a leash: "But that would make no difference. She was still going to complain" [p. 6]. Similarly, when the mother, Rita, is bullied into leaving her family, the father seeps into depression: "If it was true it meant he would have to make his own food and do his own washing" [p. 34]. The essential flaw of the characters is that they are caught within a circle where bad attitudes make bad people. From this circle, it seems, there is no escape. The only sympathetic and—not least—empathetic character is Tom Ashton, the social worker. He, however, is soon killed off, sending the message that in such an environment one decent human being does not make a difference.
Cheap perfume and hand cream
Although it shares some of the same themes, the second novella is the obverse counterpart to "Bad Attitudes." The unpopular Jen wants to have a birthday party. Jen is the only one in her class who still hasn’t got the period and suspects "there was something wrong with her" [p. 120]. Jen and her mother, Maude, are caught in a situation of non-communication, so Jen ends up throwing the party together with her egocentric and unreliable Aunt Belle, who lives with them. Maude is the dreary sensible mother, who tries to make ends meet at the same time as she wants to be a good provider for Jen. While Maude says no to the party, Belle, in the role of the impulsive, fun aunt, decides to take charge. Jen recalls how Belle’s arrival seemed a breath of fresh air: "Everything had seemed so cheerful when Belle arrived on the doorstep like a plump gaudy fairy bestowing gifts such as cheap perfume and hand cream" [p. 121]. Living with Maude and Jen has, it seems, taken away some of her flair. This party, however, seems to reawaken some of the old Belle. Consequently, Jen eventually has her party, a party for which even the most unpredictable people show up.
Although this story is lighter and more humorous than the first, it is still dominated by the same sense of non-communication. The selfishness and egotistical behaviour of the characters prevent them from truly empathising with each other. Thus, Belle primarily seems to help Jen organise the party because it suits her, not because she wants to help her niece to become more popular. At the same time, selfishness may be regarded as the one of the primary flaws in the western human being. Consequently, the close focus on this feature also functions to question normality and says something about what it means to live in a society.
The two novellas are well crafted and provide a good read. As mentioned
above, Owens does a good job in presenting the various characters
and everyday incidents of the two novellas. The stories are rich
in acute observations and human touches. The kinds of details that
Owens focuses on are metonymic presentations of complex human characters.
Unfortunately, to this reviewer, the narratives seem uninteresting.
The comedy, characters and events are all so predictable. The prejudices
that we have when we encounter the young Peter Dawson are never
refuted. Although this may be seen as a strategy of playing with
certain stereotypes of class, normality, etc., it still results
in a rather tedious narrative in which everything transpires as
somewhat "flat." The stories never come alive, because
the details, although they bring the characters to life, are so
stereotyped. Similarly, the language, although it manages to convey
a strong sense of realism through an incorporation of dialect and
colloquial expressions, seems clichéd and dreary. Thus, although
the novellas bring the characters into life, they largely fail to
engage the reader.