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The Terrible: Ysra Daley-Ward’s Debut Novel Brings Solace to Sadness

By Rhona Ezuma

Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poetry, with its natural flow and witty oratorical style has become a favourite for a generation who have discovered and nominated their poetical voices straight from the egalitarian shores of social media. When I heard poet Yrsa had come out with a novel I was at first afraid that the birth of her debut novel The Terrible would indicate a break from the brutally honest style of poetry, Florence Welch of Florence & The Machine has cited as ‘holding the truth in your hand.’ What came next, however, was a curiosity that was greatly rewarded in reading it.

Merging the genres of novel and memoir The Terrible is a continuation of her earnest self-exploration. Part prose but full of the life of poetry, it narrates Yrsa’s experiences as a young, black northern child living in Chorley, North of England. She is the daughter of ‘Marcia aka mum’ and the older sister to Little Roo, her much adored younger brother whose sensible ways and gifted cosmological sight (he sees unicorns and reads stars) earn him the label of ‘a genius’ in his older sister’s eyes.

Yrsa’s poetry is deeply personal, she has said before that key inspirations for her writing have  come from her own experiences or those of ones close to her.  The Terrible is not only Yrsa’s story but also theirs. In the prologue she recounts some of Marcia’s story, including how she migrates to England and the circumstance behind the births of each of her three children, including Yrsa’s whom she has with the Nigerian father she never gets to meet.

Close to the heart of this memoir is Yrsa’s own dealings with her mental health. The chapters of the novel, which at once seem to portray seemingly everyday narrative of banal domestic events have hidden within them experiences of very terrible things. The death of a parent, the ache of depression, the distance in bond from a sibling, the loosing of self within relationships and the necessities of survival, all provide moments of sadness felt on a pendulum varying degrees.

And so what is this thing, the terrible?

You may not run away from the thing that you are because it comes and comes as sure as you breathe. As certain. The thing is deep inside your linings, way down in the marrow. People have a lot of words for it.

There are ten thousand names for it and you. Wherever you are, it catches you up. It catches you in South Africa. Wherever you are and whatever it is, the terrible is trying to grip you and sometimes you are walking down the street and it tries to knock you clean off your feet and send you right underground. The terrible comes like a bang in the night. It takes a drink and several more and comes to plague you in the morning; it damn near poisons you with all the drink it needs to stay alive. It toys with you the morning after – stays the entire day, squeezing you by the shoulders, making your hands shake. It smiles at you, the terrible. Sitting, arms folded, in the corner the room. It just can’t help itself. It just needs friends.

(Extract from The Terrible, 2018)

The terrible is no evil dragon that Yrsa must face and defeat in order to thrive and win at life.  The terrible is relentless and comes to her in many shapes and forms: through work, love affairs, personal choice, substance abuses and losses.  However, life goes on despite them and although the memoir is ablaze with reasons for sadness there is some real hope, and dare I say victory left in it.  There is a strong sense of solace you take from it that much like one of  her poems, make it a great cathartic read for the soul and the spirit.

You Can buy the Terrible from  Amazon or Penguin

Animation by Katy Wang.