iot’s hard not to wonder, when reading Nadine Dorries’ novels, whether the newly anointed culture secretary keeps a checklist of cliches about the Irish beside her as she writes. One character even says: “No one in their right mind ever had a bad word to say about a potato.” Jesus, Mary and Joseph, as a Dorries protagonist would say. And in fact does.
Another has “vivid, twinkling blue eyes, the kind that can only come from Irish roots”. A third “embodied everything everyone knows to be true of an Irishman. He was as bold as brass, full of the blarney and didn’t know the meaning of the word shy.” Men knock back the Guinness (28 mentions in The Four Streets, Dorries’ first book), while they dream of “green fields the colour of emeralds, or a raven-haired girl, with eyes that shone like diamonds”, and kick each other’s heads in. “It was the Irish way. Fists and boots first, words later.”
Jerry, the true Irishman mentioned in the previous paragraph, loses the plot when he sees beautiful Bernadette, she of the “long untameable red hair”. Dorries writes: “Holy Mary, he thought to himself, where the feck has me sensibility gone and why is me hand shaking like a virgin on her wedding night, spillin’ the bleedin’ tea everywhere?” Later, after Bernadette has (spoiler alert) died in childbirth, he takes up with an Englishwoman, Alice (“she had an air of stuck-up-ness about her which no one from Ireland ever had”). “He might have been about to have sex for the first time in almost two years, he might have been angry and have lost all reason, but he wasn’t going to spill the Guinness.” Fortunately, Bernadette comes back as a kindly ghost.
Dorries was signed up as an author in 2013 in a six-figure deal, shortly before she was forced to apologise to MPs for failing to declare her fee for appearing on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! She has since written the Four Streets series, set in a “tight-knit Irish Catholic community” in 1950s Liverpool where the villain is an abusive Catholic priest; the Lovely Lane series, in which “five very different girls are arriving at the nurses’ home in Lovely Lane, Liverpool, to start their training” in 1950s Liverpool; and the Tarabeg series, which moves between a small village on the west coast of Ireland, and Liverpool.
For my money, the latter is the most intriguing series – I accidentally started with the third book, The Velvet Ribbon, which moves away from hardknock communities in Liverpool, where “life was lived close to the cobbles”, to Ireland and a Gypsy woman, Shona. Referred to by her grandson as a “mad old crone” and a “fecking mad witch”, she croaks these words, “The farm on the hill. The money. The fire. I can see it. They have brought it to me, to give to you. The American … Get the money. Avenge us all” – before carking it. Utterly baffling, especially if you haven’t read the first two novels.
From the gorgeous passionate dead Bernadette in The Four Streets to Victoria from The Angels of Lovely Lane, whose “naturally ash-blonde hair, worn in a swept-up style, gave definition to her high cheekbones and large blue eyes”, Dorries’ women are generally beautiful if they’re good and brave and rise up against adversity, and less so if they’re not. Alice, who has set her cap at Jerry, is variously described as smug, pert, hostile, cunning and cold. Neighbour Peggy, nel frattempo, is “plain” – “what she lacked in looks she complemented with a mental denseness”. Blimey, say it like it is, Nadine!
According to defence secretary Ben Wallace, speaking on Sky News, Dorries is qualified to be culture secretary because she is a bestselling author. “What’s great about Nadine Dorries is she produces culture that people buy and actually want to see, rather than some of the more crackpot schemes we’ve seen being funded in the past by taxpayers’ money.”
The books Dorries is writing – which Wallace didn’t go so far as to claim he’d read – fall squarely into the saga market, which is known, rather dismissively, as the “clogs and shawls” genre, and which feature misery, poverty and abuse followed by a happy ending, set at some point in the past. Her novels neither transcend nor are notably worse than others in this booming area.
Head of Zeus, Dorries’ publisher, says it has sold 2.5m of her books, of which 1.8m have been ebooks. Her editor Rosie de Courcy calls her “a completely natural, self-taught writer, with an imagination positively teeming with characters and storylines”, who is “creative, open-minded and full of warmth and humour – the warmth and humour that bursts from every page of her novels”. Others are less effusive. The award-winning crime novelist Abir Mukherjee, wielding his words with a skill far removed from Dorries’ vapid prose, twittato: “Calling Nadine Dorries an author is like saying cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer was a chef.”
While Labour’s Dawn Butler queried on Twitter how Dorries has time to be an author, given that she’s an MP, the new culture secretary is showing no signs of slowing down. She has a new book out next August, A Wicked Woman – the first in a new series, The Bellfont Legacy, which Head of Zeus expects will run to six novels. It is an “ambitious and exciting departure for one of our most brilliant storytellers”, according to the publisher, beginning “just after the Battle of Waterloo and spanning the great heyday of the cotton industry in Lancashire”, featuring “two dangerously strong women from different ends of the social spectrum”. I do love a dangerously strong woman, but I may not be first in the queue to buy it. Perhaps that’s just my stuck-up-ness showing through.