Source: Review copy
Publication: 14 November 2019 from Coronet
By reading Style magazine, I was training myself not to want things. It was going quite well. I had already found that I did not want a pair of Yves Saint Laurent mules, a chandelier made from plastic antlers, or a diamond-encrusted necklace in the shape of a pineapple. I was still working on not wanting a fitted farmhouse kitchen in warm wood.
Sylvia lives in a flat on a council estate with her not-quite-husband Obe and their two young children. She dreams of buying a house on a leafy street like the one she grew up in. If she closes her eyes, she can see it all so clearly: the stripped floorboards, the wisteria growing around the door…
It’s not ideal that she’s about to be made redundant, or that Obe, a playworker, is never going to earn more than the minimum wage. As sleep deprivation sets in, and the RnB downstairs gets ever louder, Sylvia’s life starts to unravel.
But when the estate is earmarked for redevelopment, the threat to her community gives Sylvia a renewed sense of purpose. With a bit of help from her activist sister, and her film-maker friend Frankie, she’s ready to take a stand for what she believes in.
Warm, witty and brilliantly observed, On the Up is about relationships and community, finding a way through the tough times, and figuring out what’s really worth fighting for.
Sylvia is tired. Oh, so very tired. Her neighbour is the cause of permanent, late night noise, her two children are taking up all her energy, her partner Obe lacks drive and responsibility, preferring to muse on the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Yeats in times of stress.
Sylvia and Obe are poor. Not so poor that they can’t eat, but poor enough to be locked into their anti-social neighbour, Dawn; into Priory Court, their run down council block and to be unable to see any way out. For Sylvia that is an added cause of stress. Obe meanwhile, just coasts through enjoying his minimum wage role as playworker, which gives him the joy he needs in his life.
And therein lies the rub. Sylvia feels she should be moving upwards and onwards to something better but Obe is just too laid back and only wants space to dream. His existentialism is infuriating. He refers to the reservoir outside their block as the Hackney Riviera, and when Sylvia, explaining why their neighbour is causing her massive stress and not understanding why Obe can let it go, he says to her “Other things bother me. Like why we are here on this planet and whether there is a universal consciousness that unites us all and whether we can access that through artistic endeavour.”
It is to Sylvia’s eternal credit that she did not there and then beat him up, screaming loudly as she did so.
Their children are at that difficult age. Larkin (guess who chose that name) is a massive bundle of exhausting energy and the baby, Elliot is all grizzle, teething and screams. Sylvia feels alone, resentful of her mother’s leafy Islington three bed villa which she lives in alone and pissed off at her sister who lives a hippy lifestyle in a squat.
Her one confidant, is Bill, the Council’s Anti-Social Behaviour Officer for whom she is keeping a daily journal – which resembles a stream of consciousness diary of her daily existence. It is Bill that she reaches out to when she wants to share a worry, test a theory or just vent. He may not be able to do anything about her anti-social neighbour, but he is there for her on the other end of the phone.
Sylvia is barely hanging on; her dreams of a better life are what keep her going, but all around her life is conspiring to make those dreams crumble.
Then it transpires that the Council are planning to knock down her nasty council block in favour of a regeneration scheme managed by developers. Suddenly the residents of Priory Court are up in arms and Sylvia finds herself leading the charge.
Alice O’Keeffe has created a believable and warm character in Sylvia and her situation is instantly recognisable to any parent. Struggling to get by in an age of unemployment and the gig economy, in a city where only the most affluent can afford to buy their own homes.
In the midst of all this, Sylvia is able to find a renewed sense of optimism and a community spirit that casts a different light on her situation and shows both her and Obe what really matters in life.
Verdict: On The Up, is a warm and witty observation on the nature of what is important. It is tender, acutely well observed and above all it offers hope to those who feel they are struggling under impossible domestic circumstances.
Alice O’Keeffe is a freelance writer and journalist. She was deputy editor of the Guardian’s Saturday Review section, and writes book reviews, interviews and features for the Guardian, Observer and New Statesman. She has been a speechwriter at the Department for Education and literary programmer at the Brighton Festival. Alice lives in Brighton with her husband and two children.