I was happy to be offered a copy of Strong Stuff having enjoyed A. F. Stone’s previous novel, The Raven Wheel. This is an author willing to portray both the positives and negatives of growing up within working class families. Her writing, while sympathetic to issues faced, is direct and unflinching. In some ways certain books by Jacqueline Wilson came to mind due to the topics explored, although Stone writes for an older readership.
This latest story focuses on Ruby, a fourteen year old who has been primary carer for her mum, Lisa, for a couple of years. Lisa has motor neurone disease and is now developing further complications. Ruby is struggling to cope but remains unwilling to accept the help offered by social services, fearful they will separate the pair and put them into the care system. When Lisa is hospitalised and dies, Ruby loses the home they shared. Her estranged father, an alcoholic and convicted criminal, offers to take her in, the least bad of the options available.
From here we learn about life on a grim estate of high rises populated by the people many in society fear. There are drug dealers and others looking to make money through illegal enterprises. Even in the playgrounds there is regular violence. There are families brought into the country illegally, who remain beholden to their traffickers with all the fear this entails. If Ruby is to survive she must find some way to go unnoticed, to fit in. She is not always able to keep her head down when she observes wanton cruelty.
Ruby lost most of her friends during the time she cared for her mum as she had little time to socialise. The exception is Annabelle, a girl living in comparative luxury within a loving, wider family. In Annabelle’s home, food is always available and bills are paid without worry. The contrast between the two girls’ lived experiences brings to the fore how little those who ‘have’ appreciate the day to day difficulties faced by those existing on the brink, among adults who have their own serious issues to deal with.
Yet in many ways Ruby is a typical teenager. She experiments with alcohol, falls in love, worries about her appearance, and takes risks that sometimes put her in danger. Much of what she faces is down to circumstances she has no control over due to her age. Ruby’s focus is to survive the year it will take before she may legally get her own place.
The writing is taut and engaging, the structure and flow keeping the reader eager for the next development. The problems Ruby encounters add tension: her dad’s new girlfriend, the fear under which her boyfriend lives, police interest in an acquaintance. Ruby walks a tightrope of trying to improve her own prospects while supporting those she becomes involved with. In some ways there is simplification of outcomes but this is a novel aimed primarily at teenagers.
While the story retains the pace and interest of a thriller, it delves deep into social issues using characters made fully rounded and complex. There is much to consider, especially around the challenges faced by the marginalised – those too often condemned as bringing their troubles on themselves.
A timely reminder of the humanity of those on the periphery. A thought-provoking and recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, SRL Publishing.