Fire has started in Flat 4 of Paradise Block. The young girl in Alice Ash’s story ‘Eggs’ watches with her mother, younger brother, and neighbour Min from outside the building. ‘The smoke,’ she tells us, ‘pours out from our downstairs window like a black tongue’. It stains the rooms of Flat 4, and dresses absorb the smell until they are hung outside to ‘shriek around like ghosts on the washing line’. The narrator’s mother had been crying long before the fire started, but in its aftermath she becomes increasingly distressed: she screams ‘head back, mouth open’; a few days later, she muffles her cries ‘with a toy bird stuffed in her mouth’. Left to take care of her brother like a mother might, the narrator’s health begins to deteriorate. She is seized by illness, ‘a white spool of pain’ unknotting inside her spine.
In Ash’s mesmerising debut collection Paradise Block (2021), everything is susceptible to decay. Housing displays symptoms of deterioration through institutional neglect, tenants suffer symptoms of infection and illness, class shame corrodes moments of pleasure. There is rot beneath the surface; its exposure is gradual, and darkly compelling. ‘I realise that this is something from inside,’ the narrator of ‘Eggs’ tells us, ‘something coming to the surface’. The thirteen stories in the book are intricately interconnected. The majority of the characters live, like the narrator of ‘Eggs’, in the dilapidated building of the title, located in a town named Clutter; others live in the wealthier area of Plum Regis in ‘fancy’ semi-detached houses. Ash’s fictional landscape closely resembles a number of UK coastal towns, such as Poole, where rich and poor neighbourhoods exist in close proximity, and yet are home to vastly different lifestyles and opportunities. In Paradise Block, that landscape is made subtly surreal: a sea god lingers by the beach; residents’ shadows reside in the Lilybank River. Many of the recurring locations in Paradise Block are also familiar locales of the deprived coastal town: The Brass Cross pub, the Clutter and Plum Regis department stores, the corner shop.
Paradise Block itself is ‘built very cheaply, with windows that will fall out, and damp and mould as thick as fur’, and each flat shows signs of wear: windows are ‘cracked and broken in two pieces’ (in a story titled ‘The Flea-Trap’); the stairwells are covered in ‘nicotine-coloured wallpaper with the odd rip, scatterings of damp black fingermarks around the light switches’ (in ‘Ball’). Ash paints an intimate portrait of the tenants, her writing a camera gliding through the block. Each story might be a short film – a composite portrait of a building and the people it houses. Throughout the book, characters recur, slipping through the stories, disappearing and reappearing. We meet Min from ‘Eggs’ again as a brash aunt in ‘Hungry’, as a quiet neighbour in ‘Timespeak’, and as a widower pursuing the pleasures of new connection in ‘Sea God’. We see her as if through a prism: she is unfixed, changing. These inventive and often surprising overlaps are part of the delight of reading Paradise Block: we find unexpected encounters with the same characters we mistakenly believed we understood.
I grew up in a series of council flats not unlike those in Paradise Block, with damp, greying nets on the windows and cracked bathroom tiles. Many of the conversations, gestures and sensibilities of the characters in Ash’s collection are familiar to me: not only the exhausting experience of living in deteriorating housing, but the ongoing calculation of benefits, affordability, bills to pay. Money is a source of anxiety for all of the characters in Paradise Block. In ‘Eggs’, the narrator watches her mother ‘scribbling notes with her sparkly pen and putting numbers into her calculator’ before debt collectors arrive at their door. Across several stories (‘Planes’, ‘Timespeak’ and ‘Ball’) we meet Elaine, a woman who is, according to her young son Benny, ‘obsessed with money’ since she separated from his father. She keeps cash at the back of her cutlery drawer – a habit of my mother’s I remember keenly from my own childhood – and is ashamed at ‘how she had to wear crappy clothes and plastic shoes every day because there was no money’.
Money infects everything in Paradise Block. Ash’s depiction of the knotty dynamics of financial anxiety is at its best in ‘Ball’, a story in which Benny’s father, John, bounces a ball repeatedly against his bedroom wall, caught in anxious and compulsive thought patterns. John is the caretaker of Paradise Block; he picks up discarded tissues by hand because he can’t afford to replace his vacuum cleaner if it breaks. Benny is due to come and stay, and John needs to collect him from Plum Regis train station. But John is worried about the price of the journey: his bus ticket, for instance, ‘would cost him £2.50 just by itself’. The other costs are anxious hypotheticals: a £22 fine if John loses his train ticket; a child ticket for Benny if Elaine hasn’t bought one. Searching for a distraction, John’s attention spirals, absorbed by what he considers ‘an ultimate game of skill’: simultaneously seeing how close he can bounce the ball to the wastepaper bin without knocking it over, sipping whiskey and repeating the numbers for the bus time over and over so that he doesn’t miss it. ‘Ball’ is written in compelling and claustrophobic third-person. We follow John’s compulsive thought patterns as he returns again and again to the idea that if he knocks the bin over, he will miss his bus, and will miss Benny. It’s an anxiety loop that comes to eventual fruition: startled by a noise outside, John slips. The ball does hit the bin, and he does miss the bus – and Benny. It’s a mindset I see so rarely represented in fiction: that lived reality of the scarcity of money – how it restricts and engulfs, the constant and exhausting mental arithmetic of hypothetical scenarios. Perhaps John misses his bus because he is startled by a noise outside. Or perhaps, unconsciously, he misses it deliberately. He knows he cannot afford to see Benny, and the potential pleasure of their meeting is eclipsed, instead, by a deep shame.
Shame, too, defines Marie’s relationship with money in ‘Bad Elastic’. In ‘one tiny room’ in Paradise Block, Marie lives with her girlfriend Shell, who is feverishly saving money to regain custody of her baby from a previous relationship. Marie and Shell’s dynamic is often strained, and money is the main source of conflict between them. Shell tells her girlfriend ‘when she can spend their money and how much’. Like Elaine, she also hides cash ‘inside the cereal box, in the drawer, underneath the twisting mounds of tights and knickers’. Like John, too, Shell performs a constant mental calculation: a pile of change on the windowsill is ‘enough for three pots of baby food, or ten cigarettes’. These coins mean one item or the other, never both, the characters trapped in a constant dynamic of sacrifice and gain. Shell is deeply afraid of losing what little she has, and Marie sacrifices her small luxuries – ‘no dresses, no burgers, no special face creams’ – to spend money only on what Shell deems fit.
Consumerism places huge pressure on the characters of Paradise Block, its seduction fuelled by their vulnerability. In ‘Doctor Sharpe’, Rose – desperate to be a ‘better’ version of herself – purchases a lipstick called Fuchsia Fun, which arrives with ‘a small poem that didn’t rhyme but was all about the power of womanhood’. For Marie, too, objects are weighted with the promise of happiness, pitched as a gateway to fulfilment, and she buys a soft pink satin dress at the department store. ‘Bad Elastic’ exposes imbalances at play in how the pressures of consumerism are understood. For the wealthy, luxuries – like dresses, or lipstick – are non-negotiable necessities. For the working class, these expenses carry moral attributes and expected justification. On her way home, Marie – well aware of these assumptions, and knowing she will need to confess her spending to Shell – feels ‘a sudden, spontaneous sadness, a guilty taste in her mouth’.
This ‘guilty taste’ ruins Marie’s appetite. Shame rots her pleasure. The burger she buys at the department store is ‘the cheapest thing on the menu, her favourite treat and just a small thing’. But as she eats, she notices the staff moving behind a panel of glass in the kitchen: ‘white eyeballs, teeth flashing – she can hear whispering, laughter’. She begins to feel anxious, even paranoid, and then catches a glimpse of her face in the reflection – ‘her embarrassingly eager, happy face, as if in sex’ – and recoils at her own expression. Suddenly her exposed desire for the burger disgusts her, as if her appetite itself, and the very concept of being seen wanting more than she has, betrays her class position. The food becomes repulsive: the burger bun resembles ‘a layer of loose skin’; the tomato is ‘the inside of a lip’. It’s one of the most affecting scenes in Paradise Block. Across the story, Shell embarrasses Marie for similar reasons of class exposure. She finds it ‘painful’ to see her undertake activities that betray her socio-economic position in public, activities that others bear witness to: ‘collecting vouchers, pennies from the creases in bus seats, shoplifting tampons, begging free drinks from old men, and swiping out-of-date packets of crisps from The Brass Cross’. Marie and Shell perhaps represent twin impulses: the desire to reveal class (to collect vouchers, to dig for pennies in bus seats) and the desire to cloak it (to purchase a soft pink satin dress). Both desires are driven by, and result in, shame. It’s a painful equilibrium depicted with nuance and compassion.
Across the thirteen stories in Paradise Block, characters eat similar diets of ‘White Fingers’ biscuits, black bread, eggs, and, like Marie, burgers from the department stores. This recurring imagery calls to mind the surreal, immersive world-building in Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet (2017), in which the characters eat the same foods: ‘Coffee, Golden Syrup Toast, Boiled Tinned Meat with Toast’, as listed by Grudova on a café menu in ‘Waxy’. In Paradise Block, this simplicity is a necessity, and diets are dictated by the money available to shape them. In ‘Complaint’, an unnamed girl and her flatmate, Pinkie, struggle to afford food. Pinkie reuses teabags to save money; the girl, still struggling to pay off her shoes, regularly goes hungry. She knows how much food she has in her kitchen cupboards at all times – ‘an egg, a rind of black bread and one, maybe two, packets of broccoli-flavoured pasta’ – a form of mental calculation made necessary by scarcity. In ‘Ball’, we learn that John also struggles with food. His diet consists of takeaways, ‘White Fingers’ biscuits, and kebabs – and he worries before Benny’s visit that this food won’t be good enough for his son, especially since he has moved to the ‘fancy’ semi-detached houses in Plum Regis. ‘What if he’d changed, become pretentious?’ John worries. ‘Would Benny want to eat different foods? Would he want healthy food; would he want vegetables? Maybe he would be vegetarian.’ John is anxious, now that Benny no longer lives in Paradise Block, that his apparent class mobility has not only shaped his appetite, but his opinion of his father – as if John’s diet were evidence of some moral deficit, a marker of his poor aptitude as a parent.
For John, as for many working-class people across the UK, food is intricately bound with money, time and labour. As the caretaker of Paradise Block, he has few resources – mental and financial – to devote to food. He opts instead for simplicity, convenience and low pricing. Outside of fiction, in public discourse, these choices (such as heating a ready meal instead of preparing fresh vegetables) are not framed as choices driven by socioeconomic necessity or structural disadvantage, but as the result of personal failings: idleness and ignorance. This rhetoric is familiar in a number of UK public health campaigns – the sugar tax, for example, ostensibly designed to encourage better dietary health by increasing the cost of soft drinks, was implemented in April 2018. Yet not only does the tax overlook the root causes of poor health – that is, the numerous mechanisms of poverty that inform diet – it exacerbates them by disproportionately affecting households already struggling to budget for food. In working-class spaces, ‘eating well’ does not mean there is healthy food to eat, but that there is enough food to eat. As a child, I ate tinned food, frozen food, food that was discounted, easy to prepare. I ate well: I felt full. I didn’t know, until years later, that ‘eating well’ looked different in middle-class families.
The states of decay in these stories are not unique to the world of Paradise Block. The government-commissioned English Housing Survey, published after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, found that over half a million social homes in England failed to meet basic health and safety standards. The potentially fatal hazards, found in 244,000 of these properties, resemble those in Ash’s fiction: exposed wiring, overloaded electricity sockets, faulty boilers and vermin infestations. It’s difficult to read Paradise Block without considering the UK’s social housing crisis, and hard to encounter the stained black rooms in ‘Eggs’ without thinking of Grenfell – not only the fire itself, but also the gross governmental neglect evident in the failure, over three years later, to permanently rehouse residents whose homes were destroyed. Instead of receiving support from local authorities, the family who survived the fire in ‘Eggs’ are supported by neighbours: women arrive with ‘little gifts’; Min cooks for the children and secures medication for the narrator’s mother. Relief is provided by the community, not a governing body.
Paradise Block exposes, at a granular level, the implications of living in such neglected housing: characters routinely suffer ill health caused by smoke, damp, mould; they regularly sacrifice health, safety or financial security; they rely on neighbours for emotional support and physical labour. Importantly, Ash depicts these lives – and these impossible choices – with nuance and empathy. As such, Paradise Block is not poverty-as-spectacle. Choices are not filtered through a cool, judgemental voyeurism (the kind that fuels countless poverty-focused shows and documentaries, such as Channel 4’s 2014 series Benefits Street), but through the heat of close narration, a perspective of intimacy. The collection is made rich with these portraits of interior lives: characters’ suffering brushes up against their pleasures, friendships, connections with one another; hardship is not the whole story, but one of its many fibres. There is rot beneath the surface in Paradise Block – never explicitly named, but it seems reasonable to call it austerity – and Ash’s characters live with the consequences: the pervasive material and psychological effects of inadequate social housing, class shame and poverty, as well as the communities formed on these foundations.
In ‘Sea God’, the title character alerts Min to the possibility of things hidden, and the possibility of this rot mutating into beauty, not decay. Listing some of the discarded items he has found under the sea – ‘pendants, spoons, teeth’ – he tells Min that each one contains a story. Objects-as-stories are a language they share: Min’s own belongings are ‘bits and pieces accumulated from the department store and from her long life, all proof that she has existed, that there are things Min Dimorier has done’. The objects they find are proof of other existences – other lives, other suffering, other pleasures. The objects are, perhaps, a little like Paradise Block itself: a chorus of voices, an inventory of lives lived, relics formed from both joy and hardship.