Review of “Pity” by Andrew McMillan – a deep exploration of personal identity and shared recollections.
The debut novel of acclaimed poet Andrew McMillan is situated in a familiar setting found in his published poetry collections – Physical, Playtime, and Pandemonium. The story unfolds in his hometown of Barnsley, a community still struggling to recover from the downfall of its coal mining industry and the lasting impact of Thatcher’s policies.
The main character of Pity, Simon, is a part-time drag performer and internet sex worker whose important relationships are tense: Ryan, his romantic interest who aspires to be a police officer, has conflicting thoughts about Simon’s performative lifestyle, while his father, Alex, struggles to keep his son from finding out about his own hidden homosexual experiences. The main driving force of the story is Simon’s idea to create and present a drag performance where he will impersonate Margaret Thatcher, with the goal of challenging the local audience’s perception of themselves and the way Thatcher used gendered image manipulation.
In addition to Simon’s personal account, the book includes sections written as “field notes” from a university research project that Simon’s uncle Brian reluctantly participates in. The project focuses on the town’s collective memory of its mining history and the ongoing emotional impact that is often overlooked. These sections introduce ideas like “social haunting theory” and serve as a reminder that what is hidden still has a powerful influence. They also shed light on the locals’ distrust of experts and the belief that important life skills, like financial management and resilience, are not taught in school. A third narrative voice, presented in italicized form, shares memories from miners as they make their way to work. These brief passages are the most poetic parts of the book, although some may feel slightly out of place with their tone, such as when the sky is described as “a threadbare sock of grey”.
The way this structure is presented can feel a bit overbearing. The importance of being present overshadows any subtlety, and the novel uses symbols to tie everything together. Simon, much like his father’s generation, reflects on himself while removing makeup after a show, with history waiting to be excavated beneath them. In other instances, McMillan highlights a difference in attitudes towards public displays of affection between generations through Alex’s warnings to Simon and Ryan about holding hands in public.
The feeling of pity is most intense when examining and expanding ideas of a community, and the different forms it takes on as time passes or changes occur, such as when a town is abandoned by industry and its residents must adapt to new circumstances while still being reminded of their past hardships. One of these hardships, which is revealed to be a significant part of Simon’s family’s suppressed pain, is a key aspect being explored. The ultimate goal amidst the many investigations is to find freedom and a sense of self-control – “There was something in Simon’s expression… Alex could remember from their childhood, before adolescence had erased it; a kind of freedom, a lightness.”