A new book charts the fictional life of one man across seven decades. Moreover, it documents 70 years of political and social upheaval. However, while a work of fiction, the author has told the Canary that with the book The Unheard she hopes to ‘reveal the unspoken impact of political decisions and societal events… that helps the reader make more sense of themselves and the world around them’.
The Unheard: seven decades of upheaval
The Unheard is the enraging and involving debut novel by acclaimed documentary photographer, Anne Worthington:
Spanning seven decades and working backwards through the turn of the millennium, the landscape of Thatcherite Britain, the latent effects of war, and shadowed throughout by events in the early life of the man at its centre, Tom Pullan, the book tracks the impact of tumultuous change, and how the past influences the present. The novel deals with the effects of events rather than the events themselves.
Worthington was awarded an MA Creative Writing with Distinction in 2018. She wrote The Unheard to make sense of her father’s experiences after undertaking research into the effects of trauma. She was a finalist for Iceland Writers Retreat, and shortlisted for Fish Flash Fiction Prize. The Unheard won the Michael Schmidt Prize in 2018.
Backwards in time
The first part takes place in 1999 when Tom has dementia. A point has been reached where his wife cannot take care of them both and they must live separately. Tom knows the visitors that come to the house are trying to tell him something but cannot remember what it is. And the people in his memory aren’t the ones he sees around him now.
Fifteen years earlier, in 1984, Tom is working in an office where cuts have been announced, and the policies of the government carry a sense of dread that remind him of earlier times. Haunted by the past, fearful of the future, horrified by what he sees as a callous reinvention of the country, he is left with no space to breathe. If the long shadow of the prime minister stunts the prospects of Tom’s family, it also reminds him of his earliest losses.
As the Depression continues in 1931, Tom’s father has lost a business and the family home, and starts a labouring job for the foreman he used to employ. Tom’s brother has disappeared and Tom is left to make sense of a world that is violent and unpredictable. This is the event that marks him the most.
Living with volatility
Worthington told the Canary that the premise for The Unheard came from a combination of her and her family’s own experiences, but also those she documented as a photographer:
The ideas emerged over a long time and the book brought them together. I came to writing having been a documentary photographer where I map the ways social and economic forces play out in people’s lives. A photograph doesn’t always contain enough space to show details or effects over time, whereas writing can.
My family lived with the psychological impact of political decisions, and I began to look at this more closely. It was something that was brushed over and accepted as part of life. Like many people they dealt with the past by burying it, hoping it could be forgotten even though it affected them. We lived with the volatility that comes from this, and an unsettling sense that something was wrong without knowing what it was.
I traced it back and began to see how political events from the past had created a domino effect that led to further consequences, even years later for those who weren’t alive at the time. These ripples seemed to hide in plain sight and some of what happened found its way into the book.
In The Unheard, readers are drawn into a world where brutal events from the past lie just below the surface. Plunged inside the characters’ heads, we experience their thoughts and feelings: sorrow and rage they cannot share; the intense feelings and turbulent sexuality of a teenage girl, and a boy who saw something that casts a long shadow over his life. In the process, history is humanised, fleshing out its casualties while treating them with the dignity they deserve.
Worthington is a documentary photographer and writer. She grew up in Blackpool in the Northwest of England before moving to Manchester.
Worthington: a background in photography
Living in the inner-city area of Hulme at a time when Manchester was at the centre of the UK music scene, she became part of the mix of artists, ex-students, and squatters that made the partly abandoned blocks of flats their own. She was part of the Dogs of Heaven collective that produced large-scale art performances.
Concerned with housing and housing issues, she and a group of tenants campaigned for, designed, and developed a building of 50 flats for social rent together with workspace and a theatre.
During this time she first picked up a camera and taught herself photography. Worthington went on to become a documentary photographer. Over the next 20 years she produced a body of work that highlighted the conditions of housing and the effects of social and economic change that began during the 1980s. Her work is exhibited widely, featuring alongside documentary photographers such as Shirley Baker and Tish Murtha.
Tracing the consequences of events
It is this background which made the content and context of The Unheard so important to Worthington. She told the Canary:
In the book, I trace the consequences of an event that happens early in the life of Tom Pullan, the man at its centre. Years could go by and the event would remain dormant in his memory only to be reawakened when the political environment reminded him of earlier times. I include historical context so readers can see this for themselves; the way two political periods correlate in this character’s mind, the way memory conspires to construct the present.
The book needed a timescale of several decades to show this. In the book, Tom sees similarities between Thatcher’s Britain and the Depression of the 1930s when the event that marked him the most took place. His reaction creates ripples for himself and those around him.
The event at the centre of the book slowly looms into focus as we move through the story. The book encompasses a timespan of several decades but it’s very short for a novel. I wanted the reader to be as close to the characters as possible so that you get to hear what they think and feel. I have a sparse writing style so there are few spare words, the writing moves quickly through the story. The characters have no space to breathe and the reader doesn’t either.
I ended up solving a puzzle with this book. It’s true when I say that photography is the reason why I write about these themes, but these themes run through my family. I grew up with my dad but knew very little about his past, so in some ways, he was a stranger who pushed his past away so it wouldn’t affect him. It followed him everywhere and we lived in the ripples it created.
I can make more sense of him now. His were the experiences of a generation who lived through huge social and political upheaval, as we do now. He lived in routine fear and life felt provisional to him. His past might have gone unspoken about but it could be felt instead.
The Unheard: clever, insightful, and engaging
Moreover, Worthington has some clear messages she hopes readers take away from The Unheard:
When I was writing, I wanted readers to know what the characters think and feel, the things they don’t share with anyone, things they don’t like to admit even to themselves. The voices come from deep inside their heads so there’s very little distance between the reader and the characters, and I hope readers feel involved with these people and what they have to say.
I like books that take readers into someone’s world and show them what’s hidden from view. This book is full of internal voices and I hope people see the contrast between what we present publicly and what we keep to ourselves – that both are true even though they conflict.
In a more general way, I’d like to think that a book like this reveals the unspoken impact of political decisions and societal events – that it might show someone something useful that helps make more sense of themselves and the world around them.
Plus, she’s already got another book in the works – and she’ll also be holding live readings of The Unheard:
I’m writing another novel that’s just as slow in the writing as this one was. A couple of hundred words is a good day for me. Some of my photographs of East Manchester will feature in Photo North festival in Leeds. I’ll be doing readings about The Unheard. Dates have to be confirmed but I’ll post them on IG @anneworthington1
The Unheard is a clever, insightful, and extremely well-constructed fictional look at the impact that political and social decisions by those in power has on the lives of everyday people. Worthington has woven an engaging and moving narrative across the book. Moreover, she has also highlighted just how seven decades of upheaval have impacted us all. It’s a must-read – and bodes well for Worthington’s future projects.
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