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Martina Cole is a popular novelist, known for her gritty, gutsy, no holds barred style of writing. If readers have experienced any of her other books, they will know that Ms Cole's novels are usually set in the seedy back streets of London's underworld, an area ruled by violence, hard men and poverty. The male characters are archetypical men's men, hard drinking, hard fighting, villains. Their women are generally downtrodden and ill used, if not prostitutes.
Two Women is set against this backdrop.
The book begins in the 1980's, with convicted murderess Susan Dalston, being transported from Durham prison to Holloway prison. Dalston has lodged an appeal against her life sentence. Dalston's reputation has preceded her, a dangerous woman who battered her husband to death by hitting him over 100 times around the head with a hammer. She was moved to London after assaulting a fellow prisoner in Durham prison with a snooker ball hidden inside a sock. Dalston is a mystery to her lawyers, prison officers and inmates alike, a large, unattractive woman, who refused to speak in her own defence during her trial. Her only statement was that her husband Barry, deserved to die and she would do it again if he was alive. Dalston has stuck to this throughout her time in prison and the story has never changed.
The plot then reverts to 1960, Susan is a young girl living with her violent thug of a father, Joey McNamarra, her sometime prostitute mother, June and her younger sister, Debbie. Susan is the bright one of the family, her school work is excellent and she shows great promise. Her parents however have little interest in education for girls, seeing it as a waste of time as all an East End girl has to look for is a man to give her children and marriage. Joey regularly beats June senseless, usually over her philandering ways. Susan and Debbie are used to their awful existence and do not see it as wrong or unnatural. Their father regularly grabs their breasts to see how they are growing and their mother and grandmother do nothing to stop him, finding the action perfectly acceptable.
June leaves the family's flat and sets up home with another man, Jimmy. She leaves the girls with their father and Susan has to take on her mother's role, cooking, cleaning and sleeping with her father, even though she is only 12 years old. When Jimmy is murdered on Christmas Eve, June decides to move back with Joey and the violence and heartache begin all over again. The local gossips think that Joey killed Jimmy, which he did not, but he makes no attempt to put them right, as the assumptions lead to him increasing his credibility as a hard man, a reputation Joey revels in.
Susan meets a young man, Barry Dalston. Barry is a younger version of Joey and Susan loves him, even though she knows he is unfaithful to her. Joey is jealous but when Barry puts some 'business' his way, he decides that Barry can marry Susan as soon as she is old enough. Barry and Susan marry when she is barely 16 and already eight months pregnant. On the eve of their wedding, Barry and Joey get roaring drunk and pick up two off duty prostitutes. Unfortunately for Barry, the woman he sleeps with has a sexually transmitted disease which he then passes to Susan and her cousin who he has a fling with at the wedding reception. When Susan finds out about the venereal disease, she goes into premature labour and as a result her baby dies. This sets the scene really for the rest of Susan's married life, regular beatings, four children, several miscarriages and a life of having to watch every word and action for fear of upsetting Barry. Barry and Joey are local hard men for a few years until it is obvious that they are nothing more than thugs. As their kudos in the criminal fraternity diminishes so their violence towards their womenfolk increases.
Susan Dalston is an exemplary mother, she dotes on her children who are well cared for and loved by their mother, barely tolerated by their father. During Susan's pregnancy with the youngest child, Barry gets a job as a doorman for a private club. He is in his element, prostitutes, drink and drugs on tap and a position of power seem to be his. He begins a relationship with Roselle, an ex prostitute and partner in the club.
Roselle is shocked by Barry's careless attitude towards Susan and the children and takes Susan under her wing. Roselle makes sure that some of Barry's earnings go directly to Susan, otherwise Barry would leave her and the children penniless. For once in her life, Susan has security, money and freedom thanks to her husband's mistress. She also has something she has never had before in her life, a female friend, Roselle. Barry is unable to resist chasing woman and contracts herpes from a woman he has been seeing. Roselle throws him out and he returns to Susan.
Susan comes home after an evening out to find her eldest daughter, Wendy in a terrible state. Barry has raped his own child even knowing that he has herpes. Wendy is around the same age as Susan was when her own father began to interfere with her. Barry is upstairs on the bed, oblivious to the drama and horror he has caused. Susan sends the children to a neighbour, finds a hammer and puts an end to Barry, then, still covered in blood and gore after the attack on her husband, Susan calmly makes herself a cup of coffee before phoning Roselle and the Police.
The plot then moves back to Holloway prison, where Susan is 'celled up' with another murderer, Matilda Enderby, also known as Mattie. Mattie killed her husband, a leading barrister and like Susan Dalston, is appealing against her sentence. The two women are very different yet form an uneasy friendship, Susan soon realises that Mattie is not all she seems. Mattie confides to Susan that she murdered her husband in cold blood because he was boring and not a violent sexual deviant, as she had claimed in her defence.
Susan is living only for the times when her beloved children are brought to visit her. Wendy is living in a children's home, she is suffering badly as her father infected her with herpes and she misses her mother terribly, it is only her visits to Roselle that keep the girl sane. The youngest child, Rosie has been placed with foster parents and the other two children, Alana and Barry are in yet another children's home. Susan's family were asked by Social Services to have the children, but refused. June and Joey went to the national press after Barry's death and sold their story as being the wronged parents of a murderess.
The plot thickens and twists from this point and builds up to an unexpected climax. I will say no more here for fear of spoiling the book for others!
~~About the Author~~
Martina Cole was born in 1958 and was brought up in Essex. Her first novel, Dangerous Lady, was an instant best-seller and became a highly successful TV drama series. Since then Martina Cole has written fourteen more best selling novels set in the criminal underworld of London. Ms Cole is no stranger to hardship and has taken many knocks in life herself. Her parents both died when she was young and by 18 years of age, she was living alone in a Tilbury council flat with her baby son. She began writing as a way of escaping her own problems. She has in her own words 'always been a grafter' and has built a comfortable life on the strength of her books. She has been married and divorced twice and has a son, a daughter and a grandchild. Martina Cole teaches creative writing to inmates at Wandsworth and Belmarsh prisons and is a patron of Chelmsford Women's Aid, which she says is her way of putting something back into society.
I have noticed that Martina Cole invariably dedicates her novels to family members and friends from her past, a very human touch in my opinion. For further information about the author and her books, visit Headline and Martina's own website www.headline.co.uk www.martinacole.co.uk
~~Cost and Availability~~
My copy bears the jacket price of £6.99, however copies can be obtained from various online retailers for as little as £2.49 or from 1p used from www.amazon.com
~~My Thoughts and Conclusion~~
This book is not for the feint hearted, it contains scenes of graphic domestic violence, incestuous rape and extremely bad language from start to finish. If you can get past these, Two Women is a remarkably readable novel. The characters are strong, believable and very well drawn. Some characters are so awful that I cringed as I read of their doings, others like Susan Dalston, evoked feelings of pity, sympathy, anger and sheer frustration at her treatment at the hands of first her father and then her husband. I am sure that Two Women would be very uncomfortable reading for anyone who had experienced a life like Susan's, yet I found it an un-put-down-able novel. I would recommend it to others with the proviso that the language and subject matter are liable to offend some people.