Review: Scabby Queen by Kristin  Innes

Scabby Queen by Kristin Innes is a novel about a woman doesn't quite succeed with a folk music career and ends up with depression and commits suicide

Clio Campbell first hit the headlines back in 1990 when she appeared on Top of the Pops wearing an anti-poll tax t-shirt and singing a song she had actually written for groups at protests. She killed herself in 2018 just days before her 51st birthday. Sadly, her death didn’t come after the stresses of success and the inability to cope with fame, her suicide came as a result of her own failures. Perhaps it was her failure to secure a loving partner, her failure to develop a more successful music career rather than always being remembered as a one-hit-wonder, or her failure to settle down into a ‘normal’ way of life.   Ultimately her choice to end her life came out of deep sadness for the things she was never able to achieve.

It seems that the strain of trying, for most of her life, to become a musical talent that people recognised finally got to her. Her mental health had suffered over the years and by the time of her death, it had all finally beaten her.

“Campbell was public on her Twitter account and in interviews about her struggles with depression and regularly played concerts to raise awareness around mental health issues.”

(Page 8)

Clio Campbell’s story is one that highlights the struggles people face in life. Her own fight was with her music and her desire to be remembered: to be famous. This story, however, also has a much deeper purpose.  It highlights the tussle Clio has with her own existence – the desire to be liked and respected while also wanting to push back against societal norms, to do something different by standing out from the crowd, wanting to be heard.

Clio grew up in a broken household. Her father was himself a musician and travelled frequently while her mother resented this and settled down instead with a man she saw as more dependable. Clio however resented her mother’s choice and idolised her dad. She wanted to follow in his footsteps. She wanted to be that singer that people paid good money to see. However, while she had a good, distinctive vocal she lacked something. Maybe it was her flightiness and her inability to commit to anything for prolonged periods of time. Maybe, deep down she just didn’t have it in her to compete in a world where everyone wanted to be more famous than the person that came before them.

Her early rise to fame was born more out of her political beliefs.  She saw herself as an activist and therefore felt strongly about what was happening to the country. This led to her joining the rallies fighting against the introduction of poll tax back in the ’80s. As she rioted, she sang, and it was this song that catapulted her to early fame. It became an iconic song that not only landed her a slot on the once well-known British music show Top of the Pops, but would also be played over and over at demonstrations, in social clubs, and on TV whenever the general public disagreed with something the high-brow politicians were trying to introduce or reform. 

Clio attempted on numerous occasions, spanning across several decades, to recreate her initial success but nothing quite worked. She had other albums, worked with numerous well-known artists, but that initial success could never seem to be recreated.

It would appear that Clio never really felt a sense of belonging anywhere either.  At times her happiness would come from love affairs, from feeling part of something more than just herself, while at other times her yearning to be alone won out. She would flit through stages of extreme generosity to times where she became the one on the receiving end of others’ goodwill.  There were times when she felt happiest surrounded by those living as squatters in London while on other occasions she wanted to be surrounded by the current ‘IT’ crowd, trying to once again worm her way back into a life she once had.

You have to wonder whether this woman was ever truly happy in life.

Scabby Queen is a novel by Kristin Innes about the struggles of a folk singer who doesn't quite make it and the depression it causes.

Scabby Queen by Kristin Innes

My Thoughts on Scabby Queen

Told through the eyes of people Clio knew and had relationships with during her lifetime, Scabby Queen is a novel about the struggles people face on many levels.

There are undercurrents of several themes running through this narrative. From the utopia someone must feel when they achieve success in their chosen profession to the depths of despair that washes over them when things go wrong. This is a novel that, for me, demonstrates the rollercoaster of emotions people go through when they are trying to conform or fit neatly into a certain group or way of life.

So often, we try to imitate a life that we feel others will see as successful that we tend to lose ourselves along the way, just as Clio did.

There is also a repressive edge to this story reflecting the darkness that still lingers within modern society. It seems that the majority of people have a desire to acquiescent to the norm and be seen by others as living the best life, but who decided what the best life is? We look down on those that live in a non-conformist way and who prefer to live life rather than walk through life collecting things. We have grown up being taught that living with others in a group house, be it one they pay for or one they squat in, is not acceptable, and that we should all have a wish to buy property, marry, have children and develop a successful career – but where did this ideology stem from?

I will hold my hands up and say that for years I wanted to be just like everyone else. I wanted the same successes and the same life but then one day fate played its part and I realised that actually we were the only ones to design our own path, not a government or a designated group of individuals, and I think it was this rebellious nature of Clio’s that I could relate so strongly to this novel.

At times, while reading Scabby Queen, I felt downtrodden myself and I can’t explain why.  It’s as if the despair Clio felt overpowered me and as a result, I had to read this book in sections rather than in one sitting. I began to feel a warm attachment to those characters which had had some input into her earlier life more so than those that had either remained throughout or in some way had caused her pain.

It forced me to reflect and feel thankful while at the same time gave me a kick up the arse to want to strive for me, rather than just procrastinate about it. It is rare for a book to cause me to reflect this personally on life or for me to experience quite so much of an internal monologue.

It made me think about how I would want to be remembered. Probably not the stirring that the author wished for me to have, but none-the-less this was the biggest thought-provoking message I took away from her words.

Yes, there is also the undercurrent of a feminist fight running through the chapters and how the world we live in and the careers we choose to embark on are still at times, very heavily dominated by men. Unlike other novels, however, I didn’t feel that this was the main point of the story.  Of course, I could be extremely wrong here, but I felt that this was more about how the world we have designed and grown up with seems to fuel depression and uncertainty at a time when we should all be flourishing and growing in our own unique ways.

Did I enjoy Scabby Queen? Yes, but not because of its pace or character development. I enjoyed it because selfishly, it made me think about me.

Have you read Scabby Queen by Kristin Innes? What feelings did it evoke in you?

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Scabby Queen by Kristin Innes looks at the way the music industry still favours the young and how the folk music industry is still male dominated. This slightly feminist read also looks at the topics of depression and loneliness. Read the full review via @tbookjunkie

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