Review by Jamie Bernthal
‘Carol encourages me to write, and I write’ (7). Romy Wood’s second novel, Word on the Street opens with this potentially mundane, potentially provocative line. By the end, nobody is telling Shona, its narrator, to write: she is writing alone, because she needs to (223). Nearly four decades have passed since Cixous urged women to write but despite radical advances in technology and the broadening sweep of the press, there remain few voices that are actually heard. Wood is a Cardiff-based creative writing lecturer, described in her Twitter bio as a ‘novelist, mental health advocate and facilitator of many things both spiritual and tangible.’ Her debut, Bamboo Grove (2010), explored bipolar disorder with uncompromising frankness and prose that left readers both charmed and winded. Word on the Street, too, forces the reader to straddle pleasure and anger, confusion, and wonder.
Plot: an unidentified virus is killing homeless people. The government prevaricates; the media sensationalises; nobody does anything until it affects a schoolgirl. When she is treated effectively in hospital, rather than in a quarantined makeshift shelter, it becomes clear that the epidemic need not have become one and that ‘if people were treated properly, they’d recover’ (76). Shona runs a shelter, regarded with horror by ‘The Public’ to whom she is ‘a germ-dealer, a leper-toucher’ (92). With unpleasant, unlikely friends/lovers from that heterotopia she tries to find out about the epidemic, deal with it, and be heard. They succeed bitter-sweetly. If at the end we know Shona, we understand also that the world is institutionally arranged to ignore those to whom she listens.
At Life Writing Therapy, Shona is reminded that ‘[t]he life we lead inside our heads can be just as important as the one we play out in the real world. What matters is the story’ (134). Even within a hyperbolic or allegorically dystopian vision of Cardiff, the narrative is concerned more with truth than with fact and we are drawn into Shona’s perspective. Constant references to background television reports and politicians’ spin emphasise the impossibility of objective narratives. Indeed, Wood flips conventional storytelling on its head by featuring, in grotesque cameos, politicians, journalists, and social workers (‘Minister Mike’, ‘Anorexic Gran’, etc.), figures who traditionally spread and regulate knowledge. By reducing these to irksome, slapstick charicatures, Wood subjects them to treatment usually endured by the jobless, homeless, and destitute who are here developed centrally.
Wood’s narrative style is stark, informal, and slightly odd (‘I squeezed the spot on my chin and puss shot straight out, as satisfying as the pop of a spider when you squash it in a tissue’ ), creating a hostile world where death and dirt make up the everyday. Wood has claimed to ‘write until I know who my characters are’. One gets the sense that Shona is doing the same – she never knows anyone fully but herself, and, being unable to speak and be heard, she can only know herself by writing. Her cynicism, being a ‘complete failure as a woman, [because] all perfume smells the same and makes me sneeze’ (33), leads her to observe her maybe-lover carrying a dead girl in a bin-bag, ‘like a Value Father Christmas’ (182). The blend of media-rhetoric, consumerism, and outcast cynicism makes this a strategically, disarmingly funny novel. As a middle-class male feminist, I found Word on the Street an uncomfortable book to read, in the best way.