Reviewed by Jessica White
Originally published in 2017 but recently long-listed for the revived Portico Prize, Adelle Stripe’s debut novel Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is a fictional retelling of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar’s short life. Best known for Rita, Sue, and Bob Too, which was made into a film in 1987, Dunbar experienced almost extreme poverty, physically and mentally abusive relationships and what can now be assumed to be depressive episodes, as well as an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. She began writing her first play The Arbor aged 15 before she had ever been to a theatre, noting down the dialogue and her own experiences of her native Buttershaw estate. Dying of a brain haemorrhage aged 29 in 1990, she was survived by her three children.
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile uses an impressive amount of sources to piece together a portrait of this evocative woman. Using real-life scenarios as well as imagined ones, Stripe paints a horribly beautiful portrait of both Dunbar as a person and Thatcher’s Britain, not shying away from the poverty, violence and racism present in the north. Bradford in the 70s and 80s comes crackling to life through her depiction of the factories, markets, pubs, crisis centres and homes within it, bringing both a familiarity and a freshness to Britain’s history. Stripe weaves an intricate depiction of the social structures that Dunbar was raised and lived under, allowing us to feel sympathetic to her and the people around her. This is not, however, a novel that reaches for “likeability”; although you are left with a fondness for Dunbar by the end of the novel, the racism she exhibits towards her partner Yousaf and her mixed-raced daughter Lorraine leaves a bad taste in the mouth, despite the abuse he puts her through and the context presented, in which this is “normal” behaviour. Her behaviour towards other people in her life is sometimes also reprehensible, and Stripe successfully writes a no-holds-barred account of this troubled young woman.
Stripe’s debut is full of razor-sharp writing that is easy to race through, but is best savoured for its multi-layered historical significance. She does an excellent job of cherry-picking moments in her subject’s life that speak to Britain as it was, a Britain whose heart and truthfulness has been under-represented and can only come to life by studying figures such as Dunbar. Near the close of the novel George Costigan, the actor who played the titular Bob in Rita, Sue and Bob Too asks the outraged press who have viewed the film, “how do you know what the realities are of life in the north?” It’s by reading novels such as Stripe’s that we gain an image of these realities, and what an image, and what a reality, it is.
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, by Adelle Stripe, is published by Fleet
Jessica White is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool, researching materials and textiles in Victorian literature. She is the found and editor of Another North, a platform for writing from and about the north of England. Her short book reviews can be found on her Instagram @lunchpoems.