The Mud Ballad by Jo Quenell

It’s fair to say that for many of us, 2020 was a bit crap. It started with continual rain and floods (well, it did in my part of the world) and by the time the sun sneaked out we were thrown into lockdown. A summer of cancelled events, postponed trips and avoiding ignorant people led to a smudge of reality in early autumn, before the idiots went wild and pushed us back into another lockdown, this time accompanied by rain, dark nights and monotony.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, we seem to have lost more of the stars of my era, people I grew up watching and listening too. I’ve also seen so many friends suffer, overwhelmed with the stress and isolation which 2020 has brought.

What we needed – what I needed – was something to lift the gloom, to shine brightly as 2020 staggered towards its unimpressive conclusion. And what did I get? The Mud Ballad, that’s what.

The Mud Ballad is bleak, miserly, woeful, shameful and brimming with drudgery. Set in the town of Spudsville, a dreary unforgiving town where the rain seldom stops pissing down on people and the streets are awash with mud, it charts the misery and deception of Jonathon and Daniel Crabb, conjoined twins who – due to the selfish decision of Jonathon – end up going it alone.

Aided by a cast of disreputable characters – a disgraced surgeon whose cow-part transplants didn’t work out as he’d planned, an uppity mime who has forgotten his clown roots, a bar-man with abject hygiene and an old couple breeding fighting hogs – the narrative sets out to prove that, sometimes, not wanting to be lonely is the worst possible position to be in.

So, you might be thinking, it seems that The Mud Ballad isn’t going to be the book to inject a little joy into the smothering inanity of 2020, but here’s the rub: The Mud Ballad is utterly glorious.

The misery and depravation of Spudsville, the self-pity and shame of Jonathon Crabb, the manipulative ways of both Crabb twins, the forlorn loveless mess which affects the shamed doctor, and the arrogance of the reinvented mime, The Mud Ballad hooked me in and dragged me along on a strangely uplifting and joyous journey. I laughed, I groaned, I felt the tension, and I even winced at one point, which for me is something very rare.

Putting the main plot aside, there is so much about Spudsville which is wrong, but ultimately right. From the hog fights to the excessively high suicide rate, the deserted streets and closed down shops, the rundown dirty pub and the train tracks smeared with gore and carrion, The Mud Ballad is a story which could only be set in the town.

Add to the heady atmosphere the surgeon’s inability to reject manipulation or to forget his unrequited love, a grimoire left in the pub by passing magicians, and a whole heap of hellish shenanigans, and The Mud Ballad ultimately explodes into a carnival of chaos which cannot help but push the reader into the very heart of the madness.

Loneliness, or more precisely the desire not to be lonely ever again, is at the core of the story, and that gives it a certain humanity which is easy to understand and empathise with. This balances so well with the brutality of the locations and its inhabitants, and Quenell’s style adds an appropriate voice to the story.

I read The Mud Ballad in one sitting. I did put it down at one point to go to sleep, but in less than a minute I’d picked it up again. I was hooked on Spudsville, and I dare say a fair few others will be too.

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