I was given Lily Alone as a birthday present and read it the same day. I didn’t mean to! I meant to enjoy it for longer but Dame Jacky writes so compellingly you can’t help yourself. Her latest book is topical in the light of this story about a woman who was cautioned by police and suspended from her job after leaving a fourteen-year-old in charge of a toddler. Lily’s case is rather different, and one to set you bristling with middle class disapproval.
Mum has four children by three different fathers. She doesn’t work. She doesn’t clean the flat or cook much. One of the children, Baxter, is wildly out of control, spending all his time rushing around shouting; he swears, poses in the park with an empty beer can and a fag end and is caught by his sister ‘looking at a girlie magazine’. Mum was fifteen when Lily was born and acts fifteen now. Why should she dress from charity shops? Why not use a ‘bought’ (stolen of course) credit card to buy a £200.00 dress and treat all the children? Why not go off to Spain with her new nineteen-year-old boyfriend and leave the children behind? You get the picture.
Poor Lily sees everything that’s wrong and is torn between loving her mum and hating her for her desertion. Mum doesn’t mean to leave the children alone; more, one feels, because she knows ‘the Social’ will be after her than because she thinks they won’t manage. She phones Mikey, father of two of the children and leaves a message telling him it’s time for fatherhood duties and he’s to come and look after the children. She flies off without waiting for an answer and it’s Lily who gets the call from Mikey saying he’s off to work in Glasgow for two weeks. Lily hates him, so she doesn’t tell him the truth and the children are really left home alone. Even when a kindly teacher calls round Lily won’t admit that she’s looking after the children on her own because she knows the system, too, and fears they will all be put in a home. So she bravely struggles on, feeding, cleaning and entertaining her little brother and sisters as well as she can and trying to keep nosy parkers at bay. I just know that I would be one of the ‘old bags’ who ask if the children are in the park on their own, where their mum is and so on and I bet Jacqueline Wilson would, too.
I won’t give any spoilers but things don’t work out well. And Lily is eleven years old. My hope for her is that one day she will have a good job (she’s bright) and the pristine flat she fantasises about. My fear is that she will be sponged off by her siblings and even her mother, and that she will never trust men. I don’t know how Jacqueline Wilson manages to pack so much social deprivation into a book without making it totally depressing but she does. I was reminded of the Victorian moral tales about poor, neglected children, which I have such a weakness for. In those books the ladies in the park would not have been nosy old bags but kindly Christian souls keen to ‘rescue’ the children. Or a long lost relative or kindly old gentleman would have adopted them. The author would not have stinted her (it was usually ‘her’) condemnation of the mother and the society which produced her. Jacqueline Wilson manages to be entertaining, to show, not tell, and remain authorially non-judgmental, leaving the reader to form her (it’s usually ‘her’) own opinion. She’s very interested in things Victorian herself, as shown by The Lottie Project and Hetty Feather.