A Day Like Any Other

Isla Dewar

Polygon, £8.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Time waits for no one, and it’s catching up on two Edinburgh women, Anna and George. Now in their sixties, these childhood friends meet up regularly to reminisce about their wild youth of clubbing till dawn, posing nude on the steps of the National Gallery and reciting poetry to a captive audience of bus passengers.

Anna’s burning ambition was to become a poet, but, although her verse might have had the common touch, it lacked the profundity and elegance she yearned for, so she settled for editing a small poetry magazine. These days, she lives alone in a small flat. Unwanted by her mother and married only briefly – to a man she knew was gay – she has only ever had short-lived, uncommitted sexual liaisons and now leads an isolated existence, avoiding contact with her neighbours and seeing only George.

Her best friend has had a much more social, connected life. George worked as a nurse, knows the pain of losing a child, and a husband, and is happily married again. And although she seems content on the surface, her thoughts are continually drawn back to a long-ago time and place when she felt truly happy.

At some unspecified point in the early 1970s, George ran away from home and was given a place to stay for the night by a stranger who would later become her first husband. Getting up in the middle of the night, she wandered into his kitchen and was awestruck to find, in complete contrast to the rest of the squalid flat, a chef’s paradise, kitted out with all the best equipment. Ever since, that room has symbolised her happiest days, before her husband was killed in a car crash and she was brusquely evicted.

Accosted by a neighbour who wants her son, Marlon, taken care of after school several days a week, Anna reluctantly acquiesces. Through Marlon, she gradually becomes a more active member of the community, meeting a carpenter, Richard, with whom she realises she’s falling in love for the first time in her life.

A Day Like Any Other can be a bit of a bumpy ride. For the reader’s benefit, Dewar’s characters spend a lot of their time reminding each other of things they already know. Furthermore, the kitchen McGuffin is a bit weird and its resolution on the unlikely side. And the grouchy oldie and sullen kid overcoming their initial antagonism to find mutual respect and affection, is quite a tired old trope.

On the plus side, it’s undeniably charming and imbued with a strong sense of place and belonging. Anna and George still live on the same streets where they left their parental nests and expended their youthful energy to a soundtrack of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen, their experiences rooted in an Edinburgh of long-gone pubs, clubs and junk shops that live vividly on in the author’s memory.

Better still, despite its flaws, it rings so true, Dewar evoking the preoccupations of age with a quiet authority. Her characters giggle over the prospect of growing old disgracefully, but are – or at least Anna is – pained by the sudden recall of past mistakes and indiscretions, which can surface without warning in the shower or supermarket.

Shadowed in the cover illustration by their younger selves, the retired Anna and George contemplate how the choices they have made turned them into the people they are, whether there’s still time to change and if there comes a point after which it’s too late to make amends, however clumsily, for old misdeeds.

For a book that tends towards sentimentality, it’s grounded in an awareness that experience and wisdom are qualities that are always hard-won.