In The Backstreets of Purgatory, Helen Taylor takes us on an emotional journey that brings joy, pain and laughter along the way. Her mellifluous prose is a joy to read, and each of her characters are incredibly life-like, from overachiever, anxious, psychology student Lizzie to nonchalant, arrogant artist Finn, resourceful but nuanced ex-drug addict Tuesday to crude yet elegant Kassia. By writing each chapter from the viewpoint of each of her characters, Taylor builds empathy for them, creating a distinct, complex personality and set of emotions for each in turn. Throughout the book, there is a clear love for the city of Glasgow, and the book is very much rooted in its Scottish identity. The book is not a retelling of the life of Caravaggio in a modern setting as there is little of Caravaggio in the main protagonist, Finn. The Backstreets of Purgatory is much more about Glasgow’s art school scene and, as such, is a compelling read for its less well known and ordinary, gritty struggles.
A sense of light and darkness throughout the book is embodied in the interweaving of the character’s lives and their community. Her characters are memorable. The relationships between them are sincere and authentic, as well as being complex and nuanced. She creates a sense of family in strangers and shows the relationships between each of them in their complete truth, both toxic and healthy.
By introducing magical realism through the weaving of Caravaggio into the fabric of the story, Taylor explores the idea of meeting one’s heroes. She develops the plot, creating a strong empathetic link between the reader and the characters. Whilst the plot builds consistently, there is a strong feeling of anti-climax at the end with all the characters ending up in a worst place than they had started. This can make you question the idea of meeting your heroes and whether this will truly bring happiness to your life. Caravaggio becomes a violent truth of his time, and Taylor explores the idea of culture not only from the Scottish perspective but also from the Italian sixteenth century side, and the dangers of entering in the shadows of one’s hero.
Overall, this book, which is published by crowdfunded publishers, Unbound, is a strong reflection and exploration of Glaswegian culture. Helen Taylor’s lyrical prose embodies the struggles of the backstreets of Glasgow well and I look forward to her second novel.
Hannah Miller 28th June 2019