#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Laurie Graham

Blog Post 11: The Dress Circle (1998)

We was in the Tamarind Bar last night, drinking Ankle Breakers and waiting for Mary and Scouser to get back from the Jolly Roger Cruise. He said, ‘Ba, we’ve not done bad, have we? Twenty-nine years and still going strong?’


Today is another 90s novel, also with a first person narrator, but quite different to the last blog post. Laurie Graham is an extraordinary writer and her novels are so varied in their settings and stories. But ‘The Dress Circle’ is probably my favourite, partly because it was the first of her novels that I read. And why do I love it so much? For Ba’s voice. She could’ve stepped right off the screen/pages of a Victoria Wood or Alan Bennett monologue.

Ba and Bobs are turning fifty. They met at school along with Scouser and Mary. The four of them come from working-class backgrounds, in the Midlands, and both couples have built up businesses from scratch. They are the nouveau riche with all their snobbery towards the middle-classes with their floorboards, faded rugs, and ‘granny’ furniture. They have moved up several notches and their life is now filled with new kitchens, cruises, and race horses.

Ba’s son is already married with two children. The daughter is on the verge of getting wed and Ba and Bobs are looking forward to having an empty nest. But then Bobs lets out his secret: he likes wearing dresses.

The novel deals deftly with this revelation and how family, friends, and the golf club react. But the brilliance of the writing is how Ba comes to terms with a side of her husband she never knew about.

I said, ‘There are men who wear dresses. They’re not poofters and they don’t interfere with kiddies and they don’t do nobody any harm, but when you find out you’re married to one you want to crawl into a blummin’ hole and die.’

The first person narrative makes the reader feel like they are actually in the room with Ba, listening to her confessions, her snobbery, her exasperation, her love for her family and the annoyance and hurt they shower on her. She thinks you should just get on with life, pull your socks up, count your blessings.

Everybody’s got something these days. Everybody’s got syndromes. Messing around with doctors because the dark mornings get them down, or their kiddies won’t sit still and learn anything at school. The blummin’ strap. That was what made us sit still and learn. Everybody’s just got excuses these days. And allergies. I don’t know where they’ve all sprung from. I don’t think they even knew about hay fever when we were kids.

But she fervently hopes there’s some tablets Bobs can take to sort him out and let things get back to normal.

This is a novel you can read in a sitting and it will leave you wanting to devour more of Laurie Graham’s canon of work.





Before She Was Mine

Nothing can beat a mother’s love – except perhaps the love of two very different mothers…

Freya is torn between her two mothers. Liv, her adoptive mother who nurtured and raised her, is earthy, no-nonsense. The total opposite to Melody: with her vibrant, explosive personality and extensive, brightly coloured wardrobe, Freya’s birth mother is still apt to find herself thrown out of Top Shop for bad behaviour.
Hard as it has been for Freya to try to reconcile her two families, it has been harder for her mothers. Proud of her mature and sensible adoptive daughter, Liv fears Melody’s restless influence. Meanwhile, forced to give up her baby when she was just a teenager herself, Melody now craves Freya’s love and acceptance – but only really knows how to have fun.
Then tragedy strikes, and the bonds of love that tie these three women together will be tested to the max. Can they finally let go of the past, and pull together in order to withstand the toughest challenge life could throw them?

Kate Long is one of my favourite contemporary novelists. She deals with the subject matter closest to my heart, the one I most relate to, the one I am drawn to write about myself: family. Her style draws you in, down-to-earth, funny, poignant, and her gift for characterisation makes her stories utterly believable.

In Before She Was Mine, Kate Long deals with adoption and the consequences of an adoptee getting in touch with their birth family. As a teenager, Freya tracked down her birth mother, Melody, through Friends Reunited and, despite Social Services advice, made contact. Liv, always loving and supportive, gives Freya the space to explore this relationship.

I felt great empathy for twenty-three year old Freya. Since dropping out of college, she has moved back in with Liv and works in a garden centre. She does a lot of the housekeeping at home. (Someone has to.) Liv and her fellow nature conservationist and partner, Geraint – who Freya claims smells like a badger – are consumed with newts, insects, and the poo of small mammals. Meanwhile Freya’s best friend, Nicky, is planning her wedding to a bloke Freya has a crush on. Her beloved uncle and confidante is hoping to volunteer abroad. And her on-off relationship with loser, Oggy, is on repeat mode. All-in-all Freya feels she is being left behind, no future or prospects.

When her two mothers are each dealt a tragic blow at the same time, Freya’s loyalties are divided and she finally has to grow up.

Kate Long is a  Jacqueline Wilson for adults. She has a knack of drawing you completely into an everyday world where everyday people are pushed to their limits. She navigates through ‘issues’ with sensitivity and in an authentic way. You feel like you are right there, in the thick of it, gunning for the characters. For anyone who enjoys Laurie Graham, David Nicholls, Kate Atkinson or Marina Lewycka, I thoroughly recommend Before She was Mine – and if you have never read a Kate Long novel, you are in luck as there are many more to devour.



Read this article about Kate’s own experience of adoption. Some wonderful family photos!