I really enjoyed Alice O’Keefe’s first novel, “On the Up“, which I read via NetGalley in October 2019, so I was intrigued when the publisher got in touch to offer me a copy of her new novel. Then I was a bit unsure when I saw it was based on real events, as I’m not keen on novelisations of real life, preferring to read nonfiction if I want facts. But then it did look tantalising, I said yes, and when I read the first few pages I was hooked in.

Alice O’Keeffe – “Skylark”

(23 September 2021 – NetGalley)

Where once she’d flitted between squats and encampments, she now nested quietly in her little council flat. Sometimes she wondered where her world-changing passion had gone, the almighty anger and conviction that had propelled her out of Henfield and into the squats and encampments. In moments of confusion and frustration, she wondered whether Dan had somehow leached it out of her. But most of the time she was content with her smaller existence, relieved to be away from the increasingly bitter disagreements between the people she loved best. When she remembered the old triumphs, it was almost as though they had happened to someone else, some old friend she had lost track of along the way.

It was clear from the info on NetGalley and on the book buying sites that this is a novel about the Spycops scandal, where it’s fairly recently emerged that male police officers went undercover to spy on activist groups in the UK, engaging in relationships with mainly women, I think, and even having children with them, before suddenly disappearing, leaving them bereft and knowing they’d been cheated, but not what had happened. O’Keefe has clearly done a lot of careful research, and she adds meat to the bones of this, taking the perspective of a woman who this is done to, but also to a limited (and I think well-done) way the feelings of the police officer involved, too (the review in The Guardian said we didn’t get enough about his motivations and feelings; I would argue that we did, but that the main focus and sympathy was with Skylark, as it should have been).

We open in a police interrogation – or so we think: we quickly realise this is a preparation interview, where Dan is practising his new identity in order to go undercover. Similar update interviews appear throughout the book, later moving on to interviews with a counsellor after the scandal has come out and he’s spent years on sick leave and seeking support himself.

Then we have the history of Skylark and her friends – she started off running away with road protestors as a late teen, with her best friend, escaping suburban life and expectations and a horribly stunted family unit and forming their own worldchanging group. When we meet them, along with Bendy Aoife, always doing yoga in meetings, Big Moll, who could create a stew for a camp out of a few frozen turnips and Mouse, quiet philosopher, they’re planning more of their road-closing parties, changing the world through showing people a different way of living. This is just starting to turn when Dan comes along, reliable, big-armed and practical, showing up at meetings and taking on all the crappy jobs no one else wants.

It’s a lovely and affectionate portrait of the 90s protest movement, just at the turn of when the more violent and organised groups got involved in what had been a generally gentle and rave-culture-orientated movement. Things are getting more settled, and after a life of living in camps and up trees, Skylark has just moved into a council flat, originally with her partner Mike, who has become slow and drug-addled after being a key activist for years, and is getting used to living in one place, with things around her. She has a job at a local play centre run by a tour de force of a brightly clad woman who is great at getting publicity and funding (a great side portrait in itself) and then things really seem to come together when she meets Dan. Yes, he’s away with work a fair bit, but he’s solid and dependable, though a little secretive at times.

Even when Skylark starts to find some odd things not adding up – a driving licence in a different name, the odd slip-up, she doesn’t allow herself to suspect anything. There are bigger things at stake, maybe, the movement fragmenting, members saving themselves (I love how The Rev, her oldest friend, reinvents his underground art practices and becomes a darling of Blair’s Britain, while still claiming and craving freedom – it’s really very cleverly woven together, and he provides a very poignant moment later on).

Against a background of increasing violence, of joined up movements around the world, of debate about the violence and joining up with other movements, Skylark finds herself pregnant, a tipping point that will propel us forward a decade, to when her child starts to ask questions. Is their found family enough to keep them safe?

Thank you to Hodder & Stoughton for offering me a copy of this book to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Skylark” is published on 25 November 2021.

In a nice serendipity moment for Bookish Beck, this was the second book in a row I read that featured the rave culture of the 90s (Charlie Hill’s “I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal“).