A pacy tale of high secrecy, first love and agonising betrayal there’s much to enjoy in Ruth Estevez‘s début novel, Jiddy Vardy. Dramatic, intense settings (from the North Yorkshire moors and coastline to high society life in London at the time of Haydn) and vibrant characters, (including an independent and brave heroine) enrich a plot packed with momentum. Ruth Estevez’s fine ear for language and dialect, and her nuanced exploration of belonging, family and how judging right or wrong isn’t always black or white provide food for thought as well as comfort reading to curl up with.
Recurring Themes – Belonging
“I’ve been thinking a lot about common themes in my work and a recurring one is belonging.
My Mum spoke about fitting in both as a child and an adult and it’s made me wonder if we can take on a previous generations’ problems and experiences without noticing it until one day, we realise we have. And then come the questions, How did that happen? Why did I let that happen? When did that happen? Is that how I really think or feel? How do I get rid of it?
So, am I interested in writing about belonging because it has seeped into my psyche from previous generations or is it something I’ve added all of my own? Reminds me of the Philip Larkin poem, This Be The Verse, opening line…They f**k you up, your mum and dad which goes on to say that it isn’t their fault, it’s all passed through the line between generations and then some issues are specially added, just for you.
Belonging is a major theme in Jiddy Vardy. From the beginning, the young Jiddy fights to belong in a community she wasn’t born into. Half-Italian, she doesn’t look as if she belongs in a Yorkshire fishing village, with her black hair and darker skin set against the locals’ fairer looks. She stands out like a red poppy in a field of bluebells. She is angry, confused and frustrated and also determined that she will fit in. She won’t let anything passed on be passed on again by her. In the book I’m currently writing, The Monster Belt, neither of the two main characters feel they fit in where they were born and brought up.
It’s made me ask myself why this theme reoccurs in my work. Does it seep in because we are told stories and experiences verbally from parents or grandparents? Or is it deeper, more subtle? Does it enter our psyche through our bodies or is it soaked in through atmosphere and unspoken gestures? I do believe our bodies hold experiences, so the way someone walks, reacts to others, give hugs or not, all those things are ways of passing trauma at its most extreme or annoyances at its lightest. We also take it on board subtle experiences, like being told, ‘oh, you’re pretty…..for a redhead.’ Believe me, I’ve heard that said.
Hang ups can be passed on and I’m trying really hard not to pass my accumulated ones onto my daughters. I’m also trying to break the chain of them and that’s what I enjoy exploring with my characters. Fiction is brilliant for discovering options and how a character can make changes. You can call it therapy. I call it using what you’ve got. And what about those who don’t have parents and grandparents passing their experiences and hang ups on?
Jiddy’s birth mother isn’t around. She has never met her apart from when she was born. Yet she is drawn to luxury, which is what she would have had if she hadn’t been left to a life of poverty in the fishing and smuggling community of Robin Hood’s Bay. Jiddy looks exactly like her mother, Maria Vardarelli. She yearns to travel as her mother loved to travel. She likes pretty things as her mother did.But, Jiddy was brought up in a tough Yorkshire village by a childless couple, where there was no luxury, not until she saw it at the big house on the hill and began to covet beautiful things. This half-Italian girl speaks with a Yorkshire accent. She knows how to fight and how to break the law.
But where does she really belong?
Our family moved from Bradford in West Yorkshire to a rural village when I was two years old. We had a brilliant, free childhood. For Mum as an adult, I’m not so sure. Dad went off to work and she had to interact with women who it seemed were from a different planet to her. She was a young mum surrounded by the wives of doctors and lawyers whose children were grown up and who also went into such professions. As an adult, she carried her childhood insecurities of being the odd one out. She didn’t speak of how she must have felt at the time, but she did more when we were teenagers.
When she was a little girl, a neighbour called her ‘The Odd One.’ She was the middle one of three, with an older sister who this same neighbour called, ‘The Queen of Cowper Place’ and a younger brother. Quite different names with different connotations. Just so you know, Cowper Place was the square where they grew up, in what was called, Poet’s Corner, an area for Bradford where the streets were named after writers and poets. There were Shakespeare, Scott and Wordsworth Streets, Tennyson and Coleridge Place. Mum often talked about the one friend she had, Anita Goldberg, who moved away. Mum carried this with her, but did she pass it on?
I was the only girl to go to my secondary school from my village primary. I remember in the first week, a boy called Robert asked me to meet him after school. I was in such a dilemma and I didn’t know anyone well enough to ask their advice. I didn’t want to appear uncool. In the end, I didn’t go. It was a two mile walk home, and I caught the bus. The next day, I found out he had stayed behind after school. And so had his girlfriend. Months later, I had an argument with a girl in my new friendship group. At the end of lunch break, in Maths, others, led by the leader of the group, weren’t talking to me. They’d known each other from primary school. I was an outsider.
My friends all lived on the housing estate that stood slightly removed from my village. They all had blue eyes except me. They all tanned, except me. I vividly remember sitting on the school field and lining up our arms, most tanned to lightest. The kudos was in being the most tanned. Sounds silly, and trivial, but at that age, teenage years, these things can stay with you. That first year was a crash course in adjusting to kids from other schools who seemed alien to me. I had to work out my place and who I trusted. I became part of the group, I’ll add, and we are still great friends, years later.
And sometimes, out of nowhere though, that sense of not-belonging, not truly belonging, kicks in. All of my own.
I have to admit, I also liked being different as well, or what I took on as being different. I think it made me want to be a writer. It certainly drew me to writing stories and making up characters. I sought out new places where I didn’t know anyone and I loved it. I remember a boyfriend at university saying that I liked feeling misunderstood. It shocked me at the time. ‘No I don’t!’ I remember shouting. I realised though, that I did! And he’d seen it! Perhaps what he said made me be a little more self-aware. It’s all made me look at motivation and how my characters find their place.
Mum used to say everything that we do and that happens to us will be useful at some point. I’ve realised she’s right. Jobs I’ve hated, certain experiences…As a writer, and sometimes in life in general, they’ve proved useful. So, I’m going to be grateful for it all. Our backgrounds, past, and experiences make us all unique and that makes how we view the world unique. For writing, that means, even if we all write about the same subject, each piece will be different because we are. That’s something to celebrate, isn’t it?”