Amy’s angst

Illustration by David Parkins

Trouble Half-way
by Jan Mark,
illustrated by David Parkins.
Puffin Books 1986 (1985).

Amy Calver is a girl trapped by her fears and anxieties. She lives in Gravesend, Kent, but it might as well be the world’s end for all the familiarity she has with life outside this southeast corner of England. Her only interest is participating in gymnastics, and life will be rosy if and when she gets a chance to compete in the immanent Thames and Medway Inter-Schools Junior Gymnastic Shield event.

But, as a reserve on the school team, her happiness hangs in the balance when a phone call announces that her grandfather has been taken to hospital, followed by her mother and younger sister going off to keep her grandmother company. She is left with her new stepfather, Richard Ermins, and not only is she not at all comfortable with him as an addition to the family but, since he is a long-distance lorry driver concerned about losing a week’s work and pay, there’s every chance he will not want to leave her on her own.

So her anxieties, already sky-high when she knows that as a reserve she may miss out from actually competing, rocket ever higher when she realises that she may have to leave her familiar environment and travel ‘Up North’ with Richard.

Imaginary prison by Piranesi

I very much enjoyed this novella-length tale, drawn in by the narration, the characters, and the plausible scenario all crafted by a gifted storyteller. The familial dynamics — stressed mother concerned with everything being just right, a two year old sister whose needs seem to come before Amy’s, and a new man in the house who, however nice he is compared with what came before, has yet to overcome Amy’s nervousness — all are well depicted and feel true to life.

The upshot is that, despite her apprehension, Amy is more or less bounced into joining Richard when, after collecting stock from the warehouse, he starts his deliveries; they then travel through the Midlands and she finds herself eating at cafés he’s used to patronising, visiting public conveniences to wash and brush teeth, and — to Amy’s ultimate horror — sleeping in rudimentary quarters in the back of the Bedford TK. It’s a rite of passage for Amy on this road trip, constantly extending her comfort zone, improving her understanding and knowledge of the wider world, and encouraging her to face up to her anxieties.

Those anxieties — fears surrounding stranger danger, what-if worries arising from new situations — have habitually led to the kind of stasis many may be familiar with and even suffer from. But Richard’s description of a cotton mill in Stockport emblazoned with the name AMY fires her imagination; the concern is whether she’ll be able to summon up the courage to break out from the prison of her angst and see the building for herself. It’s a journey that’s personal as well as physical; this reader was definitely with Amy every step or driven mile on the way.

Amy’s point of view is sympathetically described and well observed. Her naive innocence and relative ignorance come not from stupidity but from her mother being over-protective and from her own natural reticence. Richard, newly married and thrust in loco parentis tries hard to do the best thing and to treat Amy as bright and resourceful, but he often gets exasperated. It’s an odd-couple relationship that we see develop and bear fruit as Amy slowly discovers the inner resources she never suspected she had.

This is a beautiful and satisfying tale from the nineteen-eighties, evoking a time and life that for some readers is now almost historic; and the monochrome illustrations by David Parkins heading each chapter give added depth to the narrative.

Jan Mark 1943-2006

Read for the second #JanMARKuary event celebrating the work of the late author

10 thoughts on “Amy’s angst

    1. As someone on the autistic spectrum, like so many I know, I’m also prone to varying degrees of anxiety when faced with certain situations or choices, so this story certainly spoke to me — and I think it may do the same for you too! (And I’ve added you on Goodreads: I’m pleased you appreciate thoughtful reviews as well!)

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  1. The school girl me would have benefited from this story, I think. Jan Mark is a wise writer isn’t she, I’m tempted by this now, Chris. Life has rather got in the way of joining in the celebration of her books this month but I’m going to try and get a copy of this. Thank you for your thoughtful review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks,Anne! She is a wise writer, and her characters very believable. It’s perhaps not odd that I would’ve avoided her when she was publishing regularly, given my genre preferences at the time and the fact that any hint of the fiction being about social issues would have had me running (as a teacher I had enough of them to deal with in real life). But now, being I hope not just older but wiser, I appreciate that she was writing about real people, real emotions, and — especially — real solutions. Just brilliant.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. And thank you, Jane, hope you get to try some of her fiction, even if it’s pretty much all for younger readers. I should point out of course that it’s just the top illustration that’s by David Parkins. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Until some specialists in literature for younger readers praised Jan Mark on Twitter I had no acquaintance with her work either, least of all this book. I eagerly pounced in it and a couple of her other titles in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, each at £1.00!

      Liked by 1 person

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