Ever Dundas

Freight, £9.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

IN her acknowledgements, Ever Dundas thanks Terry Gilliam and Jenni Fagan for, respectively, Tideland and The Panopticon, both works in which young girls live in a reality that they’ve at least partially constructed themselves. Goblin Bradfield is cut from similar cloth. A child of the 1930s, she was born unwanted, her skin turned blue by the umbilical cord constricting her neck. She was so ugly, her mother drummed into her, that the midwife died of fright. Rejected by her mother and branded as something demonic, Goblin had the freedom to run wild around pre-war London and turn it into a landscape of the imagination. She developed her own confused, eclectic mythology, pieced together from HG Wells, Catholicism, horror films and folk legends (such as the tale of Queen Isabella walking the streets clutching her dead husband’s heart). Constructing a totem called Monsta from dead animal parts, she made forays into the London Underground looking for the lizard people who lived there.

That’s the young Goblin, but we’re introduced to her as an old lady too, working in an Edinburgh library in 2011 and drinking whisky for breakfast. She’s been befriended by a homeless man, Ben, who tries to get her to take better care of herself. But events take an unwelcome turn when excavations in London turn up “an assortment of objects” including some photographs which record not only the mass extermination of pets at the commencement of the Second World War but also a serious incident which requires Goblin to travel south to be interviewed by police.

The novel does get off to a slightly rocky start, lurching into action rather than hitting the ground running. But once it finds its groove, and readers have found their feet, first-time novelist Dundas is flying, penning an enthralling account of Goblin’s adventures as she runs away from home, passes herself off as an evacuee, learns to look after a houseful of animals during the Blitz and sets off to join the circus.

Part outcast, part shaman, Goblin plays her assigned role to perfection, consistently refusing to be defined by any terms other than her own. Both her sexuality and gender are fluid (right up to puberty, she passes easily for a boy), and even in adulthood she continues to invent prayers and rituals based on her personal mythology. Her ability to resist definition is such that she can even slip between families, amassing three sets of “parents” over her life. Add to that her love of animals and her attraction to society’s rejects, throw in a mystery whose solution is crucial to understanding what has made Goblin tick all these years, and the result is a captivating debut novel.

Behind a gorgeous front cover – the work of the author’s husband, Paul Wilson – Dundas presents us with an iconic protagonist: a powerful imaginative force who looks beyond the façade of 20th Century Britain and sees a fairy tale of lizard kings and dolls with shrews’ heads.