Shit Happens by Eileen Wharton
-Reviewed by Eleanor Hemsley-
Shit Happens is perhaps not best suited as a title for this book as the end lesson as such seems to be that everything turns out peachy in the end, but none the less it is definitely worth reading. Never before have I read a book that so perfectly captures the real grit of a Northern council estate without exaggerating to the point of ridicule. Eileen Wharton writes with certainty, and manages to place you firmly in the North without even having to mention the place.
What I love the most is how Wharton manages to take the most obvious things that could possibly happen in a novel set on a council estate but make them so different. She writes them from a new perspective, with a different focus that is surprising. The book is written in such a way that there is a strong sense of the community, and as a reader I felt as if I’d been living there myself for years. The Northern dialect is so well written and so natural; it’s like standing in Newcastle, in the middle of the estate just listening in.
Unlike many others this story isn’t full of potentially offensive stereotypes. If anything I think it’s realistic and looking at the truth behind the stereotypes. Yes, there’s the sort of ring leader with her gang of thugs, but Wharton brings something new to the characters, something that makes them more real. She adds in the husband component, and suddenly instead of a malicious and manipulative bully there’s a couple who inexplicably get off on the pain of others. Yes, there’s the creepy and perverted policeman, but then we get the story of why he acts that way to Rose (the protagonist). Instead of a pervert he appears instead as a man who has been wronged in some way, who has been made to look like an idiot after many domestic abuse cases he’s put his heart into that have ended with Rose dropping all charges.
This is a crime story, and Wharton manages to keep it fresh and interesting by subtly adding humour, for example in the scenes where Rose visits her ill father. Wharton also quite cleverly slowly and carefully introduces new characters to give us more potential suspects. The best bit though? I never guessed who did it. I had my heart set on it being a certain character and was just waiting for all to be revealed, but I was wrong. It was the perfect crime.
Don’t think for a second though that because this story has humour it won’t tear you apart. I found myself crying in many chapters when trying to imagine being in Rose’s position, barely being able to afford to feed her children. But those weren’t the worst bits. Wharton cruelly lightens the mood with paragraphs of women talking and laughing about sex and vibrators, and then all of a sudden we’re thrown back into the past to when Rose was beaten by her husband for wanting to meet with her friend. This happens regularly through the book, reminding you just when you start to feel a little happy again that Rose can never be that happy, and perhaps even that no one can ever stay that happy for long. It brings you back to the reality of domestic abuse, and of how women put up with it every day without doing anything to stop it.
Unfortunately though, I’m afraid the shit does not happen. I mean sure, it occasionally hits the fan and causes a mess, but the ending is so sickeningly happy that I began to doubt the title, and in fact the entire story. A book such as this one does not need a happy ending, I would even say that it gets ruined by one. And so with a single epilogue Wharton manages to ruin the perfect novel.
In spite of this though I strongly suggest you read the book. It’s so well written and thought out without conforming to the usual stereotypes that a book like this brings. Sure, I would say don’t read the epilogue unless you really love an excessively happy ending, but then if that’s what you love you wouldn’t be reading a book called Shit Happens.