The coal miners' union of the UK (NUM) started a strike in 1984, which the government of Margaret Thatcher tried to brutally suppress. The accounts of the union were frozen, and the funding was totally dried up. Other unions, including the steel workers, were also scared of persecution and failed to assist the miners. But unexpected support for the miner's struggle came from members of the lesbian and gay community in the UK.
Lesbians and Gays Support Miners (LGSM) was an alliance formed by different gay activists and organisations and was intended to fund NUM. This followed several interactions between these two extremely different groups, and they bonded over several shared issues like police discrimination, apathy from the government, and misrepresentation by the media. But ultimately, Thatcher quelled the miner's strike and started to act against the LGBT community. Though miners returned the support by actively participating in pride protests, the closure of major coal mines resulted in their becoming toothless.
Pity is the debut novel of the British poet Andrew McMillan, written in this background and exploring the travails of a former mining town to forget its past and carry on. It deals with many interesting concepts, like social haunting, which considers that social violence done in the past continues to exist in societies even in the present, though these social ghosts are mostly concealed and express themselves through symbolism. I received a review copy of the book by its publisher, Canongate, through Netgalley in exchange for my honest opinion.
Though Pity is a nimble volume of around a hundred pages, it employs a dense plot structure that acquires the form of a collage, both in its narration and composition. It is made up of many snippets of small elements that are assembled together in such a way that it is easy to get oneself lost once inside it. Instead of picking and inspecting individual elements, it is necessary to stand a little bit back and view it in its entirety to appreciate its holistic beauty. The shortness of the book offered me the convenience of reading it twice to fully imbibe the workings of the plot and understand its intricacy.
The plot of Pity follows several narrations from the multiple, alternating viewpoints of several characters. The author uses different fonts to compose the story of different characters across time. We follow a man working in a coal mine and his next two generations. His children Brian and Alex, Alex's son Simon, and his lover Ryan form the major characters of the novel.
There are three strands of narration flowing in the novel. One follows the daily routines of the coal mine worker (mentioned only as he in most of the novel) and emphasises the perils and the dreary repetition of his life. We find several passages repeating multiple times with minor changes throughout this plot line. Another strand follows his son Brian, also a mine worker, joining the project of a group of academics who are trying to comprehend how the deep personal memories of people affected by a disaster differ from the overarching narrative of it that the larger section of society believes. We are given access to many of their research notes, which provide unique insights into this.
The third plot strand concerns Alex, the second son and a closeted gay who is ashamed of it, and his troubled interactions with his openly gay son and amateur drag queen, Simon. Simon is in a relationship with Ryan, who is apprehensive of Simon's pursuit of drag shows. Simon is trying to make it into an art form by parodying Margaret Thatcher and putting on a strong political show that criticises Thatcher's actions towards the miner's strike, which is the cause of the decline of their miner's town.
Though these three plot lines barely intersect each other, it is interesting to realise that each one complements the other two. It is only by following all three closely that the reader is able to fully comprehend the historic, societal, political, and personal implications of the plot in all its immensity, which is definitely far greater than the sum of the total.
Though a short novel, Pity is magnificently profound and a triumph of story-telling art. Even with its complex structure and multiple narratives, it ultimately manages to provide emotional fulfilment to its reader.