If you want to top the bestseller charts I wouldn't suggest writing a book about your cleaner. But then Kate Clanchy is a poet. An award-winning and critically acclaimed poet. She knows all about not topping the bestseller charts. Poets never do.
Plenty of poets (that's alliteration that is) do make the move from verse to prose. Usually they plump for fiction, and more often than not the bestseller charts remain untroubled. Simon Armitage, Neil Astley and even Philip Larkin have enjoyed only moderate success with their novels. Nick Laird has fared (that's rhyming that is) a bit better but I don't think Dan Brown or Cathy Kelly are exactly quaking in their books.
Not that poets write anything in search of stardom. I am aware of this.
Which brings us to Kate Clanchy's cleaner. In 2001 the author became aware of a family of refugees - mother, two daughters and a young son - that had moved into the neighbourhood. The mother, Antigona, was a striking woman. Their paths crossed a few times and before she knew it Clanchy had offered Antigona a job cleaning her house.
So far so middle class.
But the two women become friends. Close friends. Kate slowly learns about the horrors in Kosovo that caused Antigona to flee for Britain. She helps her to navigate the complex benefits system and immigration rules. She asks her to become a nanny for her small children. She finds herself embroiled in Antigona's family disputes (an ex-husband and various brothers are also in the country) and frustrated by the outdated and outmoded beliefs regarding honour and shame that Antigona still clings to.
Antigona and Me is the story of this fascinating relationship. It is a retelling of a personal, and incredibly moving, history. It looks at the clash of cultures which, like it or not, is present in every major town and city in this country. It can be gossipy. It can be shocking.
It also throws up all sorts of intriguing issues and dilemmas. How can Clanchy adequately comment on Antigona's life from her comfortable, upper middle class position? What right do I have as a reader to judge a woman who had fled torture and near-death when she bans her daughter from hanging out with her black friends from college?
And, to be fair, the author meets most of these head on. She knows she is looking on from a privileged position and doesn't shy away from that, an approach that is essential if the book is to remain credible. She successfully balances the role of friend, commentator, author and poet to create a book that is as unforgettable as it is challenging.
It is not a book that I expected to like but I liked it very much indeed.
The author will be a guest at this Thursday's Firestation Book Swap. I suspect we will have lots to talk about. There will be copies of the book to purchase on the night. She might even sign one for you if you ask nicely.