In her debut novel, Adelle Stripe recounts the brief, defiant life of the playwright Andrea Dunbar. Dunbar was raised on the Buttershaw council estate in Bradford, one of eight siblings. Her first play, The Arbor, which premiered at the Royal Court in London when she was just 18, originated as a CSE English assignment. She was, according to one tabloid newspaper at the time, ‘a genius straight from the slums’. Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1982) was also a hit at the Royal Court and was subsequently filmed by the director Alan Clarke. Dunbar wrote one more play, Shirley, and died of a brain haemorrhage in 1990. She was 29.
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile (its title lifted verbatim from that same patronising profile) restores Dunbar to the place and time that made her — the north of England of the 1970s and 1980s:
The ground up here is always sodden, and it rains almost every day. Can’t wear anything nice. It feels like we’re on the edge of everything. Miles to Bradford centre. Miles to Halifax. And we’re stuck up here with not much to do. Holme Wood is another big estate. Sometimes I wished I lived there instead.
Dunbar had more talent than most and, at first, good fortune too. As Stripe’s account makes clear, her untutored potential was recognised, nurtured and given a platform by the Royal Court and its artistic director Max Stafford-Clark, a chance in a million. But over time the distance from Bradford to Sloane Square would prove impossible to close, and Dunbar found herself caught between the world of the arts and her life on the Buttershaw estate, some of whose residents objected to the way she depicted them, first on stage, then film.
Stripe’s novel mixes fiction and biography in a manner that brings to mind the work of the late Gordon Burn; indeed Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile was recently shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize. It fizzes like two Disprin in a pint of cider. The author’s voice and Dunbar’s mingle to create not just a portrait of an artist — funny, mischievous, reckless and truthful — but also divisions of class, geography and opportunity which continue to shape this country. You can read it in an afternoon and should; there are too few British novels as effervescent or as relevant as this.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free