Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: Skint Estate

By Jami Deise

Ever since Jeannette Walls released her memoir, The Glass Castle, in 2005, books about growing up with poor, sometimes abusive, parents have been popular. Biographies such as Educated, Hillbilly Elegy, Hand to Mouth, and the award-winning Evicted put faces and names to statistics – at least in the United States. Now British artist Cash Carraway has given readers a look at what life is like under the poverty line in Tory-run, austerity-focused London in her memoir Skint Estate. In some cases, it’s better; in others, it definitely seems worse.

Carraway begins her book on the run from an abusive boyfriend, taking a pregnancy test in the feces-smeared bathroom of a moving train. Even though she’s broke and her own parents were abusive as well, Carraway is desperate to have this baby, wanting a child to love and a family she can call her own. Anyone who has ever wondered why someone in gut-wrenching poverty would add to their complications by procreating will be enlightened by Carraway’s longing.

Determined to earn the money required to rent a place before her baby is born, Carraway finds work at a peep show, a step down from her former life as a stripper. Behind a wall, men ogle and “wank off” to her expanding body. Carraway hides no detail of the degradation, which comes from her employers as much as her customers. The smells, filth, language, and hunger of her and her daughter’s life are everywhere. The author never tries to pretty it up, and the reader can’t hide from her reality.

In both countries, it is expensive to be poor. Both the U.S. and the U.K. penalize folks on benefits who earn, inherit, save, or are gifted money. British citizens at least have the NHS, so they don’t need to worry about going bankrupt due to medical bills. They also have to contend with a government that seems determined to push poor women and children out of London, away from their families, schools, and support systems. When the Grenfell Tower caught fire, Carraway and her daughter were practically next door, at a shelter for abused women that was literally falling down on top of them.

What is the link between violence and poverty, and how does someone like Carraway develop the strength to try to escape both her upbringing and her financial situation? Near the end of the book, she reveals that no matter what else is going on her life, she wakes up every morning at four am to write, eventually producing a one-woman show before writing this book. She is also a political activist, trying to get the media to pay attention to the horrible way the government treats poor women and children. I can’t imagine having this kind of fortitude, especially in the depth of a depression she suffered that nearly drove her to suicide.

The issue with memoirs is that the reader knows, just by picking up the book, that the author overcame her life challenges enough to write and become published. When we read a book like Carraway’s, it’s important to remember that it’s not just her story she’s sharing, but the stories of millions of people all over the world who are just as desperate, but who do not have a voice. Her voice becomes theirs. Let’s hope people are listening.

Thanks to Ebury Press for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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