Books: Memories of a 1970s Teenager’s British Life, One of the Winding Tales

Madeline Sonik, based in Victoria, remembers herself younger – chain smoker, bitter and naive with an aching heart – with an elegant mixture of tenderness and amazement

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Queasy: An Aspiring Writer’s Bumpy Journey Through England in the 1970s

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Madeleine Sonik | Anvil Press (Vancouver, 2022)

$20 | 313pp


Queasy had me in his title. An uncomfortable adolescence? Consider my curiosity piqued!

The “England in the 70s” part of the subtitle also appealed to me. I grew up with my father’s laughter during reruns of On the Buses and The Benny Hill Show; at best, my knowledge of the time was spotty.

The reading experience was quite rewarding, from the “Criminals” chapters to “Dead Ewes”. By turns funny, smart, scary and incisive, Queasy delivers eerie, meandering entertainment and seductive cultural analysis with Victoria-based Madeline Sonik (Afflictions & Departures), reminiscent of her youthful personality – chain smoker, bitter and naïve to the aching heart – with a style that mixes tenderness and astonishment.

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Sonik’s history lessons are second to none and his evocation of coming of age is profoundly, ironically funny and pungent with his startling intimate revelations and incisive commentary.

Queasy begins with “There was a sawed-off shotgun.” In 1974, American-born Sonik was 14 and living with her mother in a “cheap subdivision” (located in Windsor, Ontario, where “stealth crime had always flourished”). “(A)tied to the common herd and perched wistfully on its periphery,” she was captivated by a pair of evil influences, including a teenage shoplifting wonder named Elizabeth.
Leaving Ontario – which his mother despised for its “bloody cold” and “extremely hot” weather and “bloody stupid” bilingual food packaging – Sonik believed in the hype that England was the best place to live on Earth. It wasn’t, of course.

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Each of Sonik’s chapters offers a wealth of meditations on yesterday and today, on what the teenager once didn’t know but has since learned.

The destination is a relative’s hotel in Ilfracombe, a decaying seaside resort about four hours southwest of London. While Sonik’s uncle regaled his audience with his “playboy past” (“…one night stands, two night stands, dirty weekends, women he lived with, women he impregnated…” ), Sonik listened carefully to his mother’s disillusionment: “Her face is hard and she spits out invectives, creamy memories that have all turned into curds.

Sonik explored, navigating currency, customs and linguistic novelties. As a “high school dropout,” “adolescent solipsist,” “product of American social conditioning,” and “completely apolitical immigrant,” she had a lot to learn.

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Through approximately two dozen chapters (ending on the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979), Sonik ponders national character and family history.

A traveling and piety intellect, the writer is also drawn to cultural attitudes towards milk…and in Benny Hill, Cockney rhymes about breasts, tea, dishwashers, teeth, “dead sheep” (Ted Hughes ), women’s liberation, corporal punishment, poison, alcoholism, sexual predation, Led Zeppelin, the Great War, class divisions, cigarettes and taxation.

Each digression fleshes out a portrait of England “Me Decade” as attractive as it is complex.

After a short stint at a ‘unpleasantly unattractive’ school, Sonik started working at the Molesworth Hotel, where she worked her way into a job as a waitress serving ‘grockles’ (a local word for tourists) . Their speech—”Ooo, ah I’m so ‘uuungry ah could eat a crusty ‘orse between bed rags”—confused her.

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Addicted to cigarettes and flippant dreams of his future life, Sonik kept moving forward, even after his restless mother returned to Canada.

Soon: “I kneel in front of a toilet, shake out blue, bleach crystals and shove a rag deep inside with a nicotine-tarnished fist.” She cleaned the rooms of the Hotel Candar; months later, Sonik moved about 20 minutes away to work as a “resident servant” at Kiltrasna House, a “dark, ancient, gothic” dormitory at an isolated girls’ school. Suffering from chronic bronchitis in that “house of secrets” (where she was supposed to clean while upholding the “divine moral tenor”) of the school, she went to war with Mrs. Power, a domineering caretaker with such a “tight mouth than that of a rat”. anus.”

This voracious reader and “budding writer” finally experienced a “bardic initiation” when she attended a writers retreat.

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“If I have wisdom, it remains embryonic”, decided one day the young Sonik, a chain smoker. Queasy amply illustrates the author as curious, shrewd and, yes, wise. And witty, too, which is all sauce.

Brett Josef Grubisic is the author of the recently published novel My Two-Faced Luck (Now or Never Publishing, Surrey, 2021).

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