Never Seen the Sea, by Holly Watson, is the fifth and final novelette in Open Pen’s first series of these marvellously subversive little stories. It is structured as a diary written by a young girl named Holly, whose age I would put as pre-teen. The entries record her day to day activities and offer a snapshot of life in 1990s Coventry. Holly lives with her parents and two siblings. Her maternal grandparents have recently gone through an acrimonious separation. There are aunties who are related and those who are family friends. Holly records the food she eats – Findus crispy pancakes, chips, fish finger sandwiches – the television programmes she watches – soap operas, Gladiators – and the embarrassing moments in her days. These are the highs and lows of an ordinary childhood. For readers of a certain age, who were brought up in happy enough households that didn’t have much but got by, it is a trip down memory lane.
In many ways Holly and her friends remind me of Grace and Tilly, the protagonists of Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep. There is a naivete, a gaucheness, in her observations. These offer a great deal of humour and poignancy as she views adult behaviours and copes with the casual cruelty of her peers. Her desire to attract the attention of a classmate, Tom, and her interest in an older Goth girl, Tasha, suggest that she is on the cusp of change.
Holly is at the mercy of her parents’ timetable as she and her siblings are not old enough to be left home alone. She is often looked after by Nanny Pam, whose friends from ‘the fag counter at Tesco’ are continually making inappropriate conversation. The anecdotes they tell inject an element of comedy.
“Auntie Mauve’s round at Nanny Pam’s too. […] she won a conservatory in The Daily Mail, but they wouldn’t give it to her because she lives in a top floor flat.”
In a series of diary entries, Nanny Pam and Mauve help Holly prepare for a fancy dress party she is only going to because Tom will be there. Holly expects the other girls to go as Spice Girls so Nanny Pam finds some leopard print – Scary Spice – and Mauve does Holly’s makeup.
“I look at the pink streaks across Maeve’s cheeks and the sparkly blue circles around her eyes and start worrying again.
When they’ve both finished I stand up on Nanny Pam’s bed and look in the big mirror. I look like Nanny Pam Spice.”
This short book perfectly captures a moment in time and in a young girl’s life with succinct insight and empathy. It provides an engaging and entertaining read.
Never Seen the Sea is published by Open Pen