The Bloater by Rosemary Tonks review – 1960s gem rescued from obscurity

The poet, novelist and critic Rosemary Tonks vanished from public life in the mid-1970s after publishing six novels and two acclaimed collections of poetry, leading to fevered speculation about her fate. She had converted to fundamentalist Christianity and lived as a recluse in Bournemouth until her death in 2014, visiting public libraries with the intention of destroying as many copies of her literary works as possible. Fortunately, her writing has survived, championed by admirers such as Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books, who in turn brought her to the attention of Stewart Lee, who has written the introduction to this new edition of her 1968 novel The Bloater, back in print for the first time in half a century.

Lee’s mini essay is as funny as you’d expect; he advises readers to seek out Sono-Montage, the sound-poem Tonks made in collaboration with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, so that they might experience “the kind of transporting cutting-edge taxpayer-funded out-there art that would make the current culture secretary Nadine Dorries shit hot porridge into a hat”. But he also nails the truth beneath The Bloater’s caustic surface; Tonks’s characters are frantically dodging their feelings, “trying to choke off the terror of true love with witty banter and waspish put-downs”.

The Bloater – written in four weeks, with the stated intention of making its author “a lot of red-hot money” – is the story of Min, who works at the BBC and is married to George, a man so unremarkable that she once turned out the light on leaving a room while he was eating because she had failed to notice him. She is simultaneously attracted and repulsed by her lodger, while also carrying on a flirtation with a colleague. The novel offers a whistle-stop tour of 1960s London, lively with scents and sounds, and Min’s restlessness reflects a certain dissatisfaction with the reality of free love. At times, Tonks’s writing feels rooted in its immediate milieu, but often the voice is breathtakingly modern. Her reprieve from obscurity is cause for celebration; as Lee says: “Everyone could do with a bit of Tonks in their lives.”

The Bloater by Rosemary Tonks, with an introduction by Stewart Lee, is published by Vintage Classics (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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