Our editor-in-chief Beccy Hill reviews The Terrible, the latest offering from writer and Sister cover star Yrsa Daley-Ward. All images are by Eva Zar for The Sad Issue, available to buy or download here.
I read The Terrible in one sitting, twice in one week. I read it twice maybe because I know I am writing this review, but mainly because I want to. It’s a memoir unlike any other. As someone who knows the tale of Yrsa’s life relatively well (I interviewed her for our last issue) I come away from The Terrible both times feeling like I have learnt more about her past, but still as though she has retained an air of mystery. That’s not to say that the book isn’t strikingly honest and powerfully emotional. Just like in Bone, her first published book, Yrsa’s writing has the ability to knock you for six with its stark relatability. In her own words, “Secretly, we all know the bad things that are about to happen.” A life without pain, without struggle, and without The Terrible, is not a life most people get to live - and we as humans are all aware of that.
Born in the North West of England to a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father, Yrsa’s struggles begin at an early stage in life. The book makes constant references to being black and feeling different because of it – there are no other black kids at school, no shop sells “black people’s food or hair stuff” and she longs to adhere to white Western beauty standards. Close to the book’s end she asks “Why does the world hate black people?” Yrsa was raised by her Seventh Day Adventist grandparents as her mother was a nurse who worked night shifts, which adds to her feeling of alienation. She reflects on a conversation with her younger brother, fondly referred to as Little Roo, where they say of their mother “I think she loves us a bit but not as much as other people’s mums.” Marcia Daley-Ward’s problematic choice in men, who seem unable to control themselves around an early developed Yrsa, add to Yrsa’s conclusion that she is always the problem, or the source of ever occurring danger that is present throughout the book.
"A life without pain, without struggle, and without The Terrible, is not a life most people get to live - and we as humans are all aware of that."
This danger manifests itself in the colour red – a red house of her mother’s boyfriend where they live, her school uniform being red in a dream, red wine which Yrsa drinks regularly later on in life, her mother’s red fingernails… Danger is never far away. The prose chops and changes to reflect this. Chunks of time are missed out, and the narrative skips ahead whilst we race to keep up. Timelines are a strong focus, and the concept of time itself is often questioned. As a child Yrsa muses “I have moved through several timelines already, I think.” The book sometimes feels like her diary, like she is simply noting down or observing what’s happened that day, but it can then swing into poetry, or even a script of conversation. You never know where you stand, and perhaps that’s because Yrsa doesn’t either – nothing in her life is certain. It is always changing, and she is always adapting.
Like most of us, religion is something Yrsa is trying to make sense of. Her grandparents have drilled into her that there are certain rules in life to abide by. Cleanliness being next to godliness result in her becoming germophobic, and her memories are peppered with strange mentions of breeding germs, noticing the dirt, or being unable to keep a home clean. She also reminisces of her difficulty at church, and the lack of solace that she finds there. “Each time we got on our knees to pray in church I began to cry, because I wasn’t sure that I would ever make it to heaven.” This constant sense of impending doom, or that bad things are lurking in the shadows, seems to have been heightened by her strict religious upbringing.
"You never know where you stand, and perhaps that’s because Yrsa doesn’t either – nothing in her life is certain. It is always changing, and she is always adapting."
I find it interesting that the story draws to a close when Yrsa rediscovers poetry. Having moved to South Africa after trying to get work as a model/singer in London and before that in Manchester, she reignites her love for writing at a weekly poetry night. It’s a life event of hers which I was already familiar with – the turning point of her career. After then posting her work online, she published her collection Bone. Maybe that is where The Terrible ended, although I highly doubt it. If this book has taught me one thing, it’s that we are always living with The Terrible. As Yrsa writes “It is shifty and sometimes invisible, or on holiday. A good decision here, some abstinence there, some moderation there and you’ll think it’s left you alone but then you’re walking and the terrible is a hole waiting to catch you.” The first time I read the Terrible, I am sat in a hospital waiting room. The book took me out of my own trauma and into Yrsa’s. But it also gave me hope. “There will be more love.” She writes. And I believe her.
"These are only cherry-picked stories from her past which she has chosen to share with us – undoubtedly she has many more. And undoubtedly, this won’t be her last memoir."
It might seem strange for somebody so young to write a memoir. However, Yrsa has clearly lived many a life in her time. She documents her experiences working in the sex industry, a failed engagement, relationships with older men, the loss of both her parents, working a 9-5 and spending her weekends popping pills, all the while trying to make something of herself. These are only cherry-picked stories from her past which she has chosen to share with us – undoubtedly she has many more. And undoubtedly, this won’t be her last memoir.