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Book Review: Another Life Altogether by Elaine Beale

April 29, 2010

Elaine Beale’s Another Life Altogether begins with a lie that, like so many of the other lies the protagonist, Jesse Bennett, tells throughout the novel, is meant to protect but ultimately only makes things worse. Jesse has a lot to hide from her sometimes cruel peers, especially when her family moves to the countryside from Hull and she finds herself at the fringes of the popular, but cruel, crowd at her new school.

Her family moves after her mother, who has a bipolar disorder, returns from the hospital after a suicide attempt. At her first school, Jesse explained her mother’s absence by claiming that she had won an around-the-world cruise from a cereal-box contest. The eventual discovery of the truth by Jesse’s classmates is handled with the sort of heartbreaking humour found throughout the novel:

I soon discovered that there were more euphemisms for madness than there were for sex. I also discovered that being the center of attention was not necessarily all it was cracked up to be.

It isn’t only the truth about her family that Jesse has to hide in order to avoid harassment from classmates, however: it is also the truth about herself which, in some ways, she is only beginning to understand.

Like many girls before and after her, Jesse believes she needs to hide her intelligence, though she does it to fit in with the girls rather than to attract boys. She becomes the sort of girl who sneaks Jane Eyre from the adult section of the mobile library but rarely participates in discussions in class. Nor is her love of books her only secret.

Beale portrays with precision and gentleness the difficulty of a girl coming to terms with the sort of desire for which she has no real models. While her friends pine for male musicians or the older boys, she finds herself falling for an older girl. Growing up in the 1970s in East Yorkshire means that her only notions of lesbianism come from a letter in her aunt’s women’s magazine and a book she stole from the “slush pile” in the bookmobile. When she writes letters she knows she cannot send to the older girl, she can only follow heterosexual models:

I wrote my Star Trek-inspired letters for quite a while. They were full of all kinds of dangers—flesh-eating plants, toxic gases, hostile shape-shifting aliens. Despite these terrible hazards, I’d always manage to save Lieutenant Gratsby, and she, of course, would always thank me by throwing herself into my arms and landing a grateful kiss on my lips. Then, one Saturday night, I stayed up late to watch a Vincent Price horror film and started writing letters that involved haunted castles, marauding peasants, and wicked counts determined to spread terror throughout the land.

Thus with a careful eye for the details of everyday life and the sympathetic laughter to be found within pain, Elaine Beale creates a moving image of a conflicted teen. Jesse doesn’t always make the right choices, but in the end, she grows up.

This portrait would not be so powerful, or so seemingly real, if her family were not drawn with the same care as she is: there’s her father who loves nothing more than yelling at the BBC, Uncle Ted the inept thief, and Aunt Mabel who isn’t quite as strong as she first seems. Jesse’s mother and her illness are ultimately handled well, too as Jesse comes to understand more about the nature of mental illness and the other adults around her realise that they need to take responsibility as well.

Overall, Another Life Altogether reveals just how powerfully an author who combines craftswomanship and empathy can write, and yet it is only Elaine Beale’s first novel.

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