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Review of Joelle Taylor's The Night Alphabet: An Unceasingly Creative Work.
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Review of Joelle Taylor’s The Night Alphabet: An Unceasingly Creative Work.

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At the start of poet Joelle Taylor’s debut novel, a character named Jones enters a tattoo shop in a section of London programmed to have constant spring-like weather in the year 2233. Despite already having numerous tattoos, Jones requests for the two artists, Small and Cass, to link all of the designs on her body with a fine line using a mixture of ink and a vial containing her mother’s blood. This act serves as a symbol of bringing everything together and achieving wholeness.

The tattoo parlor in the 23rd century has a retro vibe to it. While the tattoo artists may use advanced technology to make appointments, their workspace has a mid-1990s aesthetic, complete with a hard house CD soundtrack. This choice to loop a song from 1996 in the year 2233 cleverly introduces the theme of coexisting time periods, which is central to the novel. This concept leads to a series of mind-boggling and enjoyable inversions, reversals, and paradoxes. The story begins in the future, but the main character, Jones, claims to be “back”. While she seems like a stranger to Cass and Small, she knows details about their past and future. She even knows how Small got the marks on her boots. Even the sun plays a role, described as a “baby’s head retreating into the womb”.

Jones, similar to her mother and grandmother, possesses the ability to vividly experience the lives of others, transcending space and time. Each of her tattoos represents one of these “memories.” Her body serves as a metaphor for the novel itself, with each tattoo acting as a gateway to a different story. The thread of the tattooists’ conversations connects these stories together, creating a unifying line. Themes of repression, women’s resistance, control, community, violence, and justice are reimagined and recontextualized in each story. Through complex portrayals of mothers and daughters, past and present, the novel delves into the intricate layers of womanhood.

The book is incredibly imaginative and constantly pushes the boundaries. It tells a fantastical story of women disappearing and being erased. There is a creation myth about three furies who seek justice for mistreated women. The book also explores the effects of commodifying family relationships and the struggle of creating a new identity. We are given insight into the disturbing mind of a violent misogynist and the tragic story of a young girl killed in an industrial accident. The book also satirizes an apocalyptic England ruled by the “Quiet Men” and their leader, a boastful “Grande Toddler King” who promises to restore the country to its former greatness. Additionally, there is a disturbing tale of male control through ectogenetic processes. One of the stories features the Gutter Girls, a group of marginalized women on a London estate, who band together to resist male violence.

Jones shares another tale about friendship and a hidden community in a lesbian establishment called the Maryville. In this instance, three white men with pale faces attempt to enter the bar, but are quickly expelled. The Maryville and its “blood butches” – Angel, Valentine, Dudzile, and Jack Catch – are featured in Taylor’s latest poetry collection, C+nto & Othered Poems, which received both the TS Eliot and Polari prizes. It’s no surprise that Taylor’s language is so striking and feels freshly created. It can be mesmerizing, dazzling, and brutal. There are perfectly fitting uses of pathetic fallacy, such as “the rain impregnated whatever soil it could find,” as well as casual reworkings of common expressions, like “My mother kept her teeth by the skin of her teeth in the top drawer of her vanity. She had held onto them for years.” In a story about trafficked girls, the customers are subtly portrayed as mosquitoes: parasitic, vampiric, and small.

This novel centers around the power and significance of storytelling. The ways in which Cass and Small connect to these stories is important, as well as how readers respond to them. Although we may question why Jones never encounters any harmless men in her travels through time and space, this is not the main focus of the novel. Jones compares stories to water, saying that they have the ability to penetrate anywhere and are rich and satisfying. Each story contains infinite depths, with another story within it. When Small and Cass are disturbed by a tale about abandoned girls, Jones notes that there are certain subjects that people tend to avoid discussing or confronting. These stories are known by the way our bodies instinctively shy away from them. However, Taylor does not shy away from these subjects and instead bravely explores them.

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Source: theguardian.com