Sarah Tierney, Making Space (Sandstone, £8.99).
Making Space is a strong debut novel from University of Manchester alumnus Sarah Tierney. It features Manchester’s Northern Quarter bars, rainy streets and converted Victorian housing in a way that moves beyond signposting without simply being a love letter to a time and a place. It was very easy for me to empathise with her protagonist Miriam because I’ve walked those same streets as a student and after graduating. But regardless of whether or not you know the city, Tierney grounds you from the start, managing to truly capture post-student uncertainty in contemporary Manchester. The clever use of objects and imagery throughout create a sense of identity with the city even while Miriam struggles to find her own sense of self:
‘Bali Hai was somewhere off Newton Street in what I thought of as old Manchester. Cotton warehouses and underground canals, backstreets as yet uncolonised by apartment blocks and delis.’
Office temp Miriam desperately wants a clean slate so gives away most of her possessions to a charity shop. But instead of the freedom that she desired she faces both practical and emotional problems which she didn’t foresee. In Making Space, possessions take on a heavy weight and what Tierney’s characters are throwing away seem to embody aspects of themselves. Miriam’s clothes signify different periods of her life, now described as ‘too studenty,’ or ‘[too] desperate for attention,’ or ‘[too] desperate to be ignored.’ She casts them out along with DVDS, literature from her teenage years and university textbooks on literary criticism. In doing so, she tries to wipe out these former selves in one bold act. This leaves her existing at a crossroads, working temporary jobs and just about getting by in a flat that feels dominated by her flatmate Jess and Gareth, Jess’ boyfriend.
Then she meets self-professed ‘collector’ Erik and the main action of the book explores the dichotomy of Miriam’s empty room in a claustrophobic flat and Erik’s densely packed large house filled with years’ worth of gathered books, flyers and magazines:
‘It’s hard to describe how strange it felt, to open a living room door onto this, to step through an entrance into a barricade. I felt affronted by it.’
Erik used to make collages that shimmered from layers of built up colour magazines, creating something beautiful out of mundane, discarded advertisements. But now all he makes are paper sculptures of broken birds:
‘Feathers were missing, revealing white bone, or a cavity, or just a gleaming glossy black.’
The shimmering uncertainty of his earlier work has been replaced by art that is at once incredible, time consuming and grotesque.
I found the title to be an apt one because we ‘make space’ either to be filled or to be kept empty. The novel explores the loneliness and memories that gather around objects crossing both physical and psychological space. A major theme that emerges is that of potential and how our desire for freedom can often turn into its own kind of cage. It reminded me of an anecdote from the documentary The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story. After Syd Barrett had left Pink Floyd he lived with artist Duggie Fields who recalled Syd spending hours simply lying in bed staring at the ceiling. Duggie’s theory was that while Syd was in bed, he could plan to do anything that he imagined, but when he finally got up, he would have to face the reality of what was possible.
This idea of imagined potential struck a chord with me in this book because the same principle can be applied to hoarding. Gathering vast amounts of art material can give you the freedom to create widely varying pieces but it can also become a new form of restriction. Erik has ceased to be able to function as a normal person, in a normal household. His bath is full of books so he has to go to the swimming baths for his daily shower. His possessions have begun to own him and their presence is moulding his life.
The way that Tierney deals with the hopes and flaws of her characters seems too apt to be merely speculative. There is a real sense that these kinds of struggles could be happening next door and that’s where the novel’s success lies. Not everything is resolved; Miriam fails to find a middle-ground with Jess and Gareth and the shadow of Erik’s broken family life stretches beyond the last page. But isn’t that true of real life too? Great change is seldom complete and very rarely swift. There’s a realism underpinning Making Space which is what first drew me into the story and what has kept me thinking about Tierney’s characters even after her pen lifted off the page at the final full stop.