The Bloater by Rosemary Tonks review – 1960s gem rescued from obscurity

This caustically comic tale of a disaffected wife, back in print for the first time in half a century with a new introduction by Stewart Lee, is a cause for celebration

The poet, novelist and critic Rosemary Tonks vanished from public life in the mid-1970s after publishing six novels and two acclaimed collections of poetry, leading to fevered speculation about her fate. She had converted to fundamentalist Christianity and lived as a recluse in Bournemouth until her death in 2014, visiting public libraries with the intention of destroying as many copies of her literary works as possible. Fortunately, her writing has survived, championed by admirers such as Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books, who in turn brought her to the attention of Stewart Lee, who has written the introduction to this new edition of her 1968 novel The Bloater, back in print for the first time in half a century.

Lee’s mini essay is as funny as you’d expect; he advises readers to seek out Sono-Montage, the sound-poem Tonks made in collaboration with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, so that they might experience “the kind of transporting cutting-edge taxpayer-funded out-there art that would make the current culture secretary Nadine Dorries shit hot porridge into a hat”. But he also nails the truth beneath The Bloater’s caustic surface; Tonks’s characters are frantically dodging their feelings, “trying to choke off the terror of true love with witty banter and waspish put-downs”.

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