Book Review: Beyond Ugly – Constance Briscoe

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I was very intrigued to hear that Constance Briscoe had written a follow up to her bestseller ‘Ugly’, the autobiographical account of her childhood and her turbulent relationship with an abusive mother. The first book generated much media attention not least because of the legal action initiated by various family members denouncing the book as a chronicle of untruths.

‘Ugly’ seemed to end in an abrupt way that didn’t, at least on first reading, suggest that its author intended to release another instalment of the harrowing and compelling story of unwanted child done good despite the odds. So it was with relief that I learned of ‘Beyond Ugly’ which, as I’d hoped, is a more in depth look at how Ms Briscoe progressed in her chosen career as a barrister – a profession that despite great leaps and strides towards more diversity, is still very much white middle class and male dominated.

Being in the legal profession myself this aspect of her life was of particular interest to me. Ms Briscoe is now a part time judge – and in her second novel the reader becomes privy to some of the character building experiences she underwent in the early days of her career that no doubt, eventually stood her in good stead.

‘Beyond…’ starts with Briscoe looking forward to reading Law at Newcastle University. Having had to work and take care of herself for several years in order to be seen as independent for purposes of receiving a grant (her mother refused to sign the original form, instead ripping it up) she joins the University in her early 20s as a ‘mature’ student. She recounts in startling detail the day to day shenanigans she gets up to with her University friends and how she balances her social life, relationships, working as an auxiliary nurse at a hospice in London, with studying hard to achieve her overall goal of gaining a decent Law degree in order to further her career.

But there’s more to the story than just University hi-jinx, as the phantom of her horrific childhood looms large over her young adult life. Briscoe is very candid in ‘Beyond…’ about the many times she undergoes cosmetic surgery to ‘improve’ her appearance in order to do away with the taunts from her mother that haunt her that she was “Ugly, Ugly, Ugly…”

Briscoe uses her grant money for the surgery, spending most of her time at University in even more austerity than she would otherwise experience as a student, skipping meals and trying to make the money she has earned through her part time job last as long as possible. The amount of self-loathing she seems to harbour is astounding.

Both Briscoe’s books can be commended for the fact that she avoids manipulating the reader into feeling sorry for her, choosing a prosaic, matter-of-fact narrative that conveys the pain of her bitter experiences more than any overt use of sympathetic language could.

There’s something profoundly sad about the early part of ‘Beyond…’ as the reader discovers what a lonely existence Briscoe lead away from the University Campus. The references to Christmas in the book are the most poignant examples of this. With just a brief mention of a conversation she has with her ridiculously self-centred father, the book suggests she had little to no interaction with any of her other family members. She certainly stays true to her promise never to converse with her mother again.

Without a doubt Briscoe has a memory and an eye for detail that is breath taking.

She is able to describe the minutiae of the day-to-day and make references to incidences that have no greater baring on the overall novel, except maybe to add some colour, in a way that makes her books such easy reading. In all honesty she should not be able to get away with this but she does. I can only put this down to very accurate diary entries she made at the time that she has reproduced in the book in a more reader-friendly way. So instead of opting for a self-indulgent chronological, unexciting account of her life, I get the impression Briscoe greatly considered how to engage her readers when she embarked on writing both these books.

She somehow manages to make you care about something as banal as the fact that one Christmas she ate jacket potato with mature cheddar cheese and baked beans. She takes the time to detail the impact certain patients had on her life when she worked in the hospice, explaining how once they had died she took pains to make sure they looked presentable for their families.

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She has a tongue-in-cheek, sometimes surreal sense of humour. She illustrates an encounter she has with a bow-legged young barrister’s clerk from Essex during her quest to secure a pupillage with the elusive Mike Mansfield QC. In customary Briscoe fashion she makes this observation of the scene taking place around her as she is confronted by the clerk, having staged an impromptu sit-in style protest on the steps of Mansfield’s erstwhile chambers…

“…I had a clear view through the diamond (of his bow legs) and back to the Cloisters. It was the most beautiful and enchanting view I had ever had between the legs of an Essex man…”

‘Beyond Ugly’, as with its predecessor, has a good dose of levity to balance out the pain of the many challenges that face Briscoe on her rise through the ranks, not least loneliness and isolation.

On eventually managing to obtain a pupillage with the radical Tooks Court Chambers, set up by her mentor Mike Mansfield, she suffers more prejudice and victimisation at the hands of other young Afro-Caribbean females than any of her Caucasian colleagues. Trying to withstand her progress with the Chambers at every given opportunity, through the use of office politics, they finally succeed in displacing the young Briscoe at the end of her pupillage. All the while she seems to conduct herself with class and professionalism. I couldn’t help thinking this was down to Briscoe’s self-sufficiency cultivated during her hellish childhood.

The political backdrop in which some of the book takes place, namely the face off during the early 1980s between the miners and Iron Maiden Mrs Thatcher, also makes for fascinating reading. Briscoe gains much of her experience as a barrister shadowing Mansfield and other notable barristers at the time as they defended the miners, all the while attracting resentment from her envious colleagues. There are also many other vivid accounts of memorable characters she had the dubious pleasure of representing at court.

The book is not without its drawbacks. For a start Briscoe seems to constantly get her dates mixed up in the book, making claims that an event took place in one year only to say something in the next chapter that suggests it happened in another. For a fastidious reader like me this was confusing and mildly irritating.

As with ‘Ugly’, I would have liked Briscoe to explore her relationship with her father in more depth or at least discuss how she felt about the fact that despite his buoyant finances and multiple homes she had to resort to desperate measures in order to get help from him.

She makes subtle allusions to feelings of resentment but this is one instance where she could have been more explicit. Her father never even seemed to look for her. Maybe I’m just looking for skeletons where there aren’t any and perhaps Briscoe genuinely has nothing to say in that regards. However it’s hard to imagine she didn’t feel a sense of betrayal to an extent.

Nevertheless, ‘Beyond…’ is a very worthy follow up the controversial ‘Ugly’ and fans of Briscoe’s first novel will be relieved that she hasn’t lost her touch as an undeniably good storyteller. The book ends in the late 1980s with her learning she is to become a mother amidst uncertainty of whether she will be able to obtain a tenancy after leaving Tooks Court. There is an epilogue that hastily brings the reader up to date on Briscoe’s life and career, perhaps leaving room for at least one more volume of her life story so far. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

TOLA OSITELU

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