DOLLYWAGGLERS by FRANCES KAY
PB, 235 pages, Kristell Ink
If the cover with its drowned and ruined puppets wasn’t a big enough clue, then let me warn you right now that Dollywagglers is dark. Bloody dark. Dark as all hell, in fact. And all hell is what’s broken loose on the English countryside in the wake of a mysterious and probably not wholly natural plague known as The Eppie.
We don’t see the Eppie, but we follow lead character Billie through the aftermath, through a devastated south-east England where “parped” bodies rot in the streets and ditches, and where no-one can be trusted. She used to be a puppeteer, a “dollywaggler” in the seaside resort of Southwold, and now she’s looking/not-looking for her former partner-turned-lover-turned-traitor. It’s possible Billie has been brought back from the dead, but it’s equally likely that she’s cracking up.
And meanwhile in the ruins of London something ugly stirs. A new puppet arising, manipulated by unseen hands…
Dollywagglers is by turns grotesque, with scenes of child abuse and torture, surreal (the fancy-dress costumes of the self-appointed firing squad), heartbreaking and, at the same time, curiously uplifting. There are no easy answers here – we don’t know what caused the Eppie and we don’t get to find out, and the solutions presented by the nascent government and it’s new mouthpiece are as unsettling as anything that’s gone before. This is a slice of Billie’s life, of her journey towards some kind of redemption, from a self-proclaimed hard bitch who has shut down and claims she doesn’t cry, to her reluctant adoption of the role as a mother following a tragedy. Billie isn’t the only viewpoint character, but she’s the only one who feels as if her journey is moving her in the direction of a glimmer of poetry and hope, and it’s the end to her story that is both touching, uplifting and curiously optimistic.
Recommended, but not one for the squeamish!