REVIEW // by Connor Harrison
Paradise Block by Alice Ash
Disaster is relative. There is no way to determine how a disaster, large or small, might derail a person’s life; there’s no statistic—death toll, national debt, property damage—that can weigh the emotional toll. So it is that while most disasters remain personal, localised, others become in some way universal; they take on a new, public dimension of grief, and become symbolic. And in the wake of these disasters—whether it is a tsunami, a terrorist attack, a food shortage—art is sure to follow. Every public trauma has its poems and paintings, its novels and films, as artists try and piece together the wreck. Before the pandemic became the global catastrophe, that symbol for the working classes and minorities of Britain was Grenfell Tower. Grenfell was a melding pot of disasters—highly flammable cladding, a dismissive local government, a flat block full of the widely dismissed—that would kill seventy-two people. And Alice Ash’s Paradise Block is a Grenfell book.
Ash’s stories begin as the Grenfell news story did: with a fire. In ‘Eggs’, a family’s flat catches alight, and though it is contained, the fire is our entrance to the narrator’s life, and to the building itself. The fire is like a signal, an opening shot to warn us that these people, too, could go up in flames at any point.
…the firefighters come quickly and use their twisting hoses on the spluttering flames that want to reach up and touch the big yellow letters that say PARADISE BLOCK. They look awkwardly at where my mother’s dress has been burnt. She is leaning against the building, her ears covered against the fire alarm, the tattered white material billowing around her naked legs and feet.p. 2
After this, the book begins to move deeper into the building, and for the duration, we are essentially stuck inside with the residents, buried alongside them. Their world is made up mostly of claustrophobia, mould, and boredom, and even in the stories that take place outside, the flat block is still there, just behind or below. The address itself—Paradise Block, Box Lane, Clutter—is a little too Dickensian, especially when seen beside ‘Plum Regis’, the richer part of town, but this only stands out when they are applied heavy-handedly; otherwise, the names are not what matter. What matters is that the building comes to represent a certain way of living—a ubiquitous kind of financial and spatial poverty, where everyone else is on top of your head.
The cast of characters in Paradise Block slip in and out of view. In ‘Eggs’, the narrator refers to a ‘Min’, an older woman who helps—or interferes, depending on how you look at it—around the flat. Later, she is mentioned briefly in ‘Timespeak,’ as the neighbour of a Mr. Cornflower, and her husband is still alive. But by the time Min finds herself at the centre of the book, in ‘Sea God’, a beautifully slow-paced story, her husband is dead, and she is almost entirely alone. Like with so many other residents, Ash crafts Min Dimorier in parts; characters are caught in someone else’s rear-view mirror, or in a passing thought, until finally, we find ourselves in their homes. Like a kind of Cannery Row council estate, we see how each small world bleeds into another. ‘This is the way things tend to be’, Ash writes, ‘Min is full of stories but they are kept, very quietly, inside.’ (p. 165).
While the scope of the book is executed with a clean, professional eye, and the isolation of Paradise Block is complete, sometimes it feels as if a story ought to have taken more risks on the page. In ‘Planes’, Benny Todd, a ten-year-old boy, writes a series of letters to a father he never sees, and they begin convincingly:
Hi Dad,p. 20
I know it’s been a long time and you are so busy, but actually, I’ve got to talk to you. I’m stuck here with Elaine the Liar, and pretty soon I’m going to lose it, go completely mad, or something.
But as the letters continue, they come to feel too neat, too verbose for such a young writer. Perhaps there ought to be some misspelt and incorrectly used words, or the kind of awkward phrasing that kids use. And there is the other side of the spectrum, Benny’s father, John Dodd. John is Paradise Block’s caretaker, a man from an older generation with a bad temper and worse health, a small metaphor for Paradise Block. But in his own story, ‘Ball’, his thoughts and choice phrases rarely step outside the stereotype: ‘it’s sod’s law, the very day you’re s’posed to be coming up, and all these jobs coming in, and your mother being so uptight, as she is, God bless ‘er.’ (p.97) Despite this, though, John’s story is still carried off; Ash collects around him the realities of a self-destructive and depressed father. And when it comes to the book’s final piece, where John resurfaces as the husband to a mail-order bride, the shift brings to view a different man. He continues to speak in clichés, mostly, but these are offset by Annie, his bride, and her kind eye. In one scene, she watches him prepare for a doctor’s appointment:
John looked small and so sad, like a little boy in his smart shirt. He had been standing over me at home, saying to me while I ironed, ‘Make sure you get all the creases.’ I didn’t know why he needed to be looking so smart for this little health visit in Plum Regis, but then, when we got on to the bus, I saw that John had even done up his top button and that he was combing his hair behind his ears with his big hands. I realised that my John wanted to impress the doctor.p. 209
Where Ash particularly excels is in her portrayal of what it is to be poor. Sometimes there is an almost gothic element to the book, a little of Poe in a story like ‘Dr Omar Sharpe,’ with its obsessions, its loneliness and horror. But to say that Paradise Block is actually gothic, would be to suggest a thread, however loose, of a romantic life. This is not the case. These men, women and children are isolated, starved, living day by day, hoping there will be a wage on the weekend. They are at the mercy of their circumstances and of quiet disasters. And perhaps most importantly, Ash knows that there is a difference between ennui, that middle-class, literary dread, and the acute boredom of poverty—how repetition is the only thing you can afford.
Grenfell Tower and the community inside it only gained media attention after the fire; only after their tragedy did the public know names, ages, jobs, obituaries. We were forced to move in reverse, reading about who these people were, before their stories became headlines. Because this is how disaster works: firefighters and journalists, digging around in retrospect. And while Paradise Block is a book of private disasters, the best stories are those that remind us, however subtly, that these are the people whose stories are typically confined to newspapers. The residents are the kind of people a politician does not generally meet, sit down with—because, like soot, their stories will stay on your hands.