As the debate around gender recognition in the C21st rages on Rosie Garland’s new novel The Night Brother is a fantastical story of identity and belonging: of sexuality and gender. Set in late C19th and early C20th Manchester this is the story of Edie and Gnome, angry siblings trying to sort out their lives, whilst at the same time the suffragettes are taking to the streets and demanding the vote.
The story begins in 1894 in a pub in Manchester. “My night brother is here. Halfway between yesterday and tomorrow morning, he shakes my shoulder.”
Edie and Gnome take us on their adventures through night time Manchester. I love the way in which Rosie catches the cheeky, challenging attitude of working class people.
Gnome gets them into Belle Vue Zoo by pretending to be a tea boy for the workers in the lion house. As they sail for free into the zoo Gnome tells Edie; “Here’s the thing. If you act confidently, folk believe what they see and hear. Act nervous, like you don’t belong in a place, and you’ll stand out like a sore thumb.”
The story is set in a vibrant time for working class women, 1894-1910. In 1895 the Manchester and Salford Women’s TUC sets up to help organise the oppressed women in industries from tin box to weavers to laundry workers and running alongside this is the campaign for the vote. Rosie captures the excitement held out to women to finally escape Victorian female stereotypes and the strength to become visible on the streets and in demonstrations.
Edie is growing up and trying to discover her true self. She gets a job, moves into rented rooms and makes new friends. Gnome and her family try to hold her back but she educates herself through the local library, the art gallery and by meeting middle class suffragette Miss Abigail Hargreaves.
Edie comes across the suffragettes as they demonstrate in All Saints, Manchester. Edie says; “Here are the women that Ma rails against; the scourge of society, on a mission to drag it to its knees. Ma would be terribly disappointed. From what I can see, everything is proceeding with the utmost decorum.”
For me, this is where the novel loses its excitement. It might have been better if Edie met Mary Quaile who at this time was also on a journey from being a domestic to setting up a cafe workers union in central Manchester. It was not just the suffragettes who were demonstrating in Manchester at this time; many working class women were taking to the streets, they were angry and demanded better pay and conditions.
And although other working class women appear in the book, apart from Edie, I feel they are caricatured as downtrodden.
Running through the book is the conflict between Edie and Gnome, and as they grow up it becomes more vicious. Gnome resents Edie’s friendship with Abigail and inveigles himself into supporting a suffrage demonstration in Ashton-under-Lyne. But reluctantly he realises that he has fallen for Abigail, who is only interested in Edie. Sounds like a familiar story? It is not. There is a deeper narrative going on at the heart of the book, but you will have to read it to find out.
“The Night Brother” is a fascinating story made real by Rosie’s knowledge of Manchester during this period. “Manchester music rings in my ears: the squeal of trams and shouts of wagon-drivers; the slamming of doors and clash of plates from the cafes; the roar of newspaper-sellers; the percussion of clogs sparking stars from the pavement; the halloas and hail-fellows of a thousand folk at the beginning of the day’s labour, still brand spanking new.”
The Night Brother costs £16.99. Buy it from or like me, borrow it from your local library – if you still have one.