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Only Here, Only Now by Tom Newlands review – growing up with ADHD

Only Here, Only Now by Tom Newlands review – growing up with ADHD

The prose in Tom Newlands’ debut novel is glorious, managing the feat of being both muscular and airy at the same time. But it is first and foremost the landscape that he stakes out that grabs you by the throat. Only Here, Only Now is set amid the “rubbly ground”, “brambles and bins”, discarded syringes and “stamped on cans” of the fictional Muircross, a gritty, grotty post-industrial town on Scotland’s Firth of Forth. The year is 1994 and the mood in Muircross is hopeless: the pits have closed, and nothing has moved in to replace them. For 14-year-old Cora, though, the outlook is somewhat different. She has no love for the town she’s lived her life in – as far as she can see, it’s “a manky wee hellhole sat out by itself on a lump of coast the shape of a chicken nugget, surrounded by pylons and filled with moonhowlers and old folk and seagulls the size of ironing boards that shat over everything”. But she’s far from hopeless; she’s full of dreams. She wants college, and Glasgow, and a flat of her own. She wants a life that’s going somewhere. She wants out.

Cora’s drive comes in part from the restlessness and rebellion that possess most teenagers, even when it’s the case that “round here, you lived in your town, and then you died in your town”. But Cora, we discover, isn’t like most teenagers; not exactly. She can’t sit still; her thoughts fizz and skitter, and “jump 10 chapters ahead at a million miles an hour”. She’s seen the school nurse and been sent home with print-outs; the word “hyper” has been bandied about. But in 1994, in a town like Muircross, ADHD isn’t part of anyone’s vocabulary – and Cora herself has other things to worry about. She and her mam are on the list for a house in nearby Abbotscraig; her mam uses a wheelchair and this house has a ramp. But the vision of a brighter, easier future recedes when her mam produces a new boyfriend, who abruptly moves in with them. Gunner – one-eyed, “head like a conker” – is an ambiguous presence in Cora’s life: taking her on long walks and teaching her birds’ names on the one hand, stashing stolen goods under her bed on the other. Cora keeps a watchful distance until a series of shocking events force the two of them into an awkward alliance.

From here, the novel tracks four tumultuous years: it’s a late-90s coming-of-age tale in which Cora’s evolution from dreamy, myopic teen to shrewd,self-reliant young woman unfolds against a backdrop of phone boxes, scrambler bikes and fast-food outlets; Space Raiders, Kickers and Diamond White. While her journey is small in terms of distance travelled – the action edges from Muircross, to Abbotscraig, to the West End of Glasgow – Cora’s metaphysical progress is firmly in Bildungsroman territory: along the way, she shucks off the constraints of family, negotiates the complexities of friendship, learns after a fashion to support herself, tries her hand at love. She navigates a path around the sort of monsters that flourish in small, impoverished towns and picks her way past the hazards (drink, teen pregnancy, hard drugs) that lurk in them, too. She figures out, slowly, whom she can, and can’t, trust. And despite all these urgent external challenges, she works her way through her internal struggles, too: coming to terms with the trauma and tragedy of her past, and with the truth about herself and her complicated, animated, effervescent brain.

It is the manner in which Newlands expresses this effervescence that makes Only Here, Only Now so unusual and so moving – and ultimately, if my experience is anything to go by, so memorable. Cora’s neurodivergence is vividly, uniquely present in the language Newlands gives to her. It emerges from the pages in the evocative eccentricity of her metaphors and similes (“her perfume smelled of lawnmowing”; “his voice came out of [the phone] all crazy and crackly like a wee electronic talking prawn”), and in the glitter and shimmer she perceives in the world around her. By having Cora deploy the shabby objects and meagre accoutrements of her life in unexpected, revivifying context, Newlands casts a new light both on the experience of living with ADHD, and on the humdrum, down-at-heel world in which Cora is living.

Towards the end of the novel, Cora finds herself on a Muircross rooftop, drinking wine from a bottle with an old friend, as police cars race by. “We sat there in silence watching the blue light bleeding through the trees like we were waiting for a sign,” she says. “To be rained on, to be caught, to be split apart by lightning. To be given the answer to something, from somewhere.” In Only Here, Only Now signs are few and far between, and answers hard to come by. But in showing us the world through Cora’s eyes, Newlands offers us, instead, both beauty and hope.

Source: theguardian.com