I read a proof copy of Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes back in April, when it was originally due to be published, but its release date in the UK was pushed back to July due to the pandemic. It tells the story of Clio Campbell, a one-hit-wonder Scottish pop star and political activist who takes her own life just before she turns 51, some three decades after a brief period of fame as the singer of the anti-poll tax anthem ‘Rise Up’.
Clio’s suicide isn’t a spoiler as it is revealed right at the beginning of the book when her body is discovered by her friend Ruth. The story then jumps back and forth in time looking back at Clio’s life with each part retold by a selection of people who knew Clio from very different perspectives. The non-linear story is slightly confusing initially, but I really got into it by the second half as the glimpses of Clio’s life through the eyes of others gradually come together to reveal an affecting character portrait of someone who is very vulnerable in lots of ways behind the outspoken public facade.
Much like Innes’ Not The Booker Prize-winning Fishnet, ‘Scabby Queen’ raises a lot of complex questions about a variety of social issues in an engaging format, with an ambitious political span from the rise of Thatcherism through to the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums. Clio’s passions, insecurities, hypocrisies and deep sense of justice are shaped by her childhood against a backdrop of miners strikes and a difficult relationship with her mother. The time she spent living in a Brixton squat with an undercover police officer allows Innes to examine how class, gender and race influence activism in different ways. Her bumpy career in the music business is particularly well documented in the pieces of journalism between chapters which reveal the thinly veiled sexism and ageism towards female musicians, rendering the emotional outpouring on social media following Clio’s death even more hollow.
‘Scabby Queen’ is an excellent piece of contemporary Scottish fiction and I look forward to reading more of Innes‘ work. Many thanks to 4th Estate for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.