On the Shelf: Thirst by Kerry Hudson

In Thirst, Kerry Hudson’s sophomore novel, Alena, is promised, upon leaving her native Siberia, “Lots of work. For good girls with good English like you. Lots of work and a good salary too.” She discovers she has been brought to London to be trafficked. Dave, who dreamed of travel and accomplishment, only made it as far away from his Roehampton Estate as Hackney. He works as a security guard in a department store on Bond Street, making only just enough money to get by. They meet when Dave must catch Alena, who tries to steal a pair of shoes. Rather than berating her for shoplifting, he tries to learn about her, to understand why she tried to lift what didn’t belong to her. She reveals little about herself and her circumstances. Still, he finds her compelling.
Before Alena gets away without getting into any trouble, she tells him, “Once you are something, you are always it.”
The story that follows continually tests Alena’s assertion by showing readers two people, impoverished in circumstance but not necessarily in spirit, who fall very carefully in love. But their love story is surrounded by the realities of their circumstances. Can Dave and Alena escape the labels they themselves and society have assigned them? Can they learn to trust each other with the darker parts of themselves? Can they escape the assumptions they’ve made about themselves and each other? Will they be able to get past their insecurities and the tentativeness they wear like armor? Their struggles are replicated in the communities in which they find themselves: other girls, perhaps not as clever a survivor as Alena, are also trafficked, brutally abused, and seemingly stuck; the folks on Dave’s housing estate are similarly cash-poor with little prospect of social mobility; people feel they have the right to “own” other people, using them for personal profit. Hudson’s prose does not shy away from the brutality, mess, and difficulties found in anyone’s situation.
Thirst ends on a hopeful, but ambiguous, note—some readers may not like the absence of a neatly-tied bow at the end, but in a novel where few things are tidily wrapped, such an ending is hardly unexpected.
Thematically, Thirst is not a comfortable novel; nor was Hudson’s debut, the charmingly titled Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (the story of Janie Ryan, one of the fiercest young women I’ve ever come across). Hudson’s characters are not neat and shiny—they are scrappy, they tend to swear, and they tend to struggle. As a result, I think they are convincingly real and utterly compelling. While literature can be a kind of escapism, escaping too much too often neglects the stories and people that are not told or told only in the margins. Part of Hudson’s allure, I think, is her unabashed willingness and skill at making marginal stories and lives an integral part of contemporary fiction. Hudson makes an immeasurable contribution to the current literary landscape by making it more socially just and inclusive through the kinds of voices and stories she tells, and is a writer not to be missed.
Thirst, published by Chatto & Windus, is available now in the UK; US readers may not have to wait long for its States-side release or can order abroad. Kerry’s debut, Tony Hogan, is available everywhere.

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