Book Review: Scabby Queen, by Kirstin Innes
Clio Campbell, charismatic disrupter and one-hit wonder, is dead at 50, by her own hand. This we learn in the opening pages of Kirstin Innes’s second novel. Her protagonist grew up in a Scottish mining community, schooled in folk, forged in the crucible of the Miners’ Strike, banished as a teenager and briefly, brightly, properly famous in the early 1990s, her celebrity sealed by a Top of the Pops spot where she weaponised the sweeping, rebellious sentiments of her anti-Poll Tax anthem Rise Up by revealing a Can’t Pay Won’t Pay t-shirt at the last gasp.
Thanks to this simple but searing act of defiance, Clio’s death reverberates far beyond her limited fame – she makes sure of that – and sends those whose lives she touched, from intimate partners to passing acquaintances, burrowing back into their shared past.
We never hear directly from Clio but she comes through loud and clear in the memories of her associates, who are listed like dramatis personae at the start of the book.
Innes won the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize in 2015 for Fishnet, her assiduously researched debut novel set in the sex industry. One wonders how much research Innes had to do to bring this diverse cast to life, such is the acuity with which she establishes their perspectives – sometimes clashing, sometimes converging – over 45 years. Innes knows these people, so much so that she channels their thoughts, actions, impressions with a reported fluency which does not require use of the first person.
We hear, among others, from Ruth, the friend in whose house Clio took her life; Hamza, her younger lover, who went on to far eclipse her fame in his rap career; decent, taciturn Uncle Donald, a father figure by default as much as design; feminist activist Sammi, at the centre of the book’s most gripping subplot; and Xanthe, the reformed crusty who reinvents herself running a yoga retreat, forsaking “all that idiotic hope.”
Superfan turned superstar Shiv West arrives late to the party, ambivalent about Clio’s ferocious yet protective pep talk on the music industry (“it was as though her mother had turned up at the school gates and tried to wash her face with a spat-on hanky”), until years later when the tables have turned, and there is final garbled gossip from her estranged mum. As her journalistic contemporary and eventual posthumous biographer Neil Munro says, “we all have our different memories of Clio”.
Far from creating a scattershot portrait, a picture emerges of an earthy, unpretentious, needy, selfish, sexy, self-righteous, driven soul who inspires loyalty, sympathy, awe, aggression, frustration and lust.
With sympathetic brushstrokes, Innes captures the tragicomedy of a poorly attended gig in Ullapool (“the hall had been banged together with cardboard in the Seventies and then just left to rot in the weather”) and Clio’s disastrous Robert Burns/grime crossover album (savaged in The Scotsman, apparently), but also grimly lays bare the predatory nature of the music industry and the paradox of squat culture in Nineties Brixton, where women planning to produce their own magazine are still expected to do all the housework.
Her comrades eventually settle into bourgeois conformity but Clio keeps raging – against the comfortable activism of Make Poverty History, for Scottish independence and land reform, and pursuing her most intense crusade against corrupt cops infiltrating activist groups to the extent that they fathered children with the women they were spying on. This most absorbing part of the book is really Sammi’s story but Clio, ever needing to be the centre of attention, makes sure she gets the final curtain call with her non-lethal suicide bomb of a parting shot.
Scabby Queen, by Kirstin Innes, 4th Estate, £12.99, 400pp
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