- Jeff Hutchinson
Sarah May was born in Northumberland, England in 1972. She studied English at London University and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.
Her acclaimed first novel, The Nudist Colony (1999), was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. A bleak, menacing fable set in a violent and corrupt England, the story centres on 14-year-old Aesop and his manipulative mentor.
Her second book, Spanish City (2002), is a novel set in a pleasure resort on the north-east coast of England and chronicling the evolution of pleasure across the twentieth century, for which she was jointly awarded a 2001 Amazon.co.uk Writers' Bursary.
The Internationals, set in and around a Macedonian refugee camp during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, was published in 2003. Her fourth novel was The Rise and Fall of the Queen of Suburbia (2006). Her latest books are The Rise and Fall of a Domestic Diva (2008) and The Wonder Girls (2009).
She has also collaborated extensively with The Mayhem Company, a theatre company working with young people in London. Her play Elephant 21, about the regeneration of London's Elephant and Castle, was performed in July 2010 at Unit 215, Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Her play The Butterfly Club was published by Methuen Drama in Producer's Choice: Six Plays for Young Performers in 2010.
Sarah May lives in London.
It is Sarah May’s ability to surprise which makes her debut novel, The Nudist Colony, (1999) published when she was just 26, so striking.
Set in an England that is at once recognisable and entirely new, a degenerating post-war empire, crumbling into itself, lost to the glory of its past, the novel recreates, like Amis’ London Fields, the mood, tone, shape and colour of London; but it is a city at several removes, seen through the distortions of circus mirrors.
The Nudist Colony begins when the chauffeur driven car of Ludovic James, former favourite of 'reclusive millionaire' Mack Velli and now a lord of the underworld, knocks over 14-year-old Aesop Whitmore outside King’s Cross. Aesop, 'without searching for it or wanting it' becomes 'Ludovic’s spiv'. Ludovic is driven around London by Douglas, a one-legged man who combines murderous activity with uxoriousness. He is being treated by the cold Dr Achilles - a dermatologist who seems to treat her patients as if they were butterflies and she a collector - for an unknown skin disease picked up when he was working for Velli in the Brazilian rainforest. Aesop’s entry into this world takes him far from the petty crime he has known as a boy, and into a much darker, more sinister and altogether more lurid landscape of corrupted souls.
The Nudist Colony is a difficult book, at times a little abstruse. Despite this reservation however, it is a singular achievement and quite unlike anything I have read before. It is an ambitious novel and a serious one. Unsettling, and blackly funny, it is an exercise in pure and unfettered imagination; the characters are well-drawn and the settings vividly brought to life. But above all it is May’s gift for the unexpected, for sly twists of phrase, which render her sentences new and original and unique, and which make The Nudist Colony so difficult to forget.
Spanish City (2002), May’s second book, lacks the mesmeric oddness of The Nudist Colony, but is much tighter in terms of structure. The novel has an impressive depth, a melancholy and wisdom which is surprising from such a young writer. When Hal, a weary, middle-aged teacher living in the faded glamour of Setton, once a premier pleasure resort, is kidnapped by a couple of ex-students on the day of the school pantomime, he is taken, still in his cat costume, to Moscadini’s ice-cream parlour. There he will tell the boys a story of love, lust, and betrayal, of dream and illusion; of a failure of courage and the unknown consequence of each and every action. Although May once more remakes the world in Spanish City, it resembles our own more closely. Gone is the incessant quest for the unusual which, at times, let her debut novel down. Spanish City is the warmest of May’s novels and perhaps the saddest.
The Internationals (2003) is her most accessible novel to date, moving at a much brisker pace than her first two books. Set in and around a Macedonian refugee camp during the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, it combines the turn of unexpected phrase of her debut, with the meticulous structure of her second novel, to great effect. May’s achievement is to keep control of a large cast of characters, taking us with deft and subtle shifts, in and out of criss-crossing narratives. Presidents, Mayors, advertising executives, aid workers, refugees, volunteers and diplomatic staff live and work and fight together as the country attempts to modernise while the bombs fall on Belgrade and thousands flee Kosovo. It spans 78 days. Each chapter in the novel refers to the temperature – constantly rising – which is not only a novel idea, but serves as a simple means of creating tension. As shades slide away and spring turns into early summer, the characters are forced into confrontations that will force change.
It is in The Internationals that May gives a freer reign to her humour. Barbed and black and often deeply sarcastic, it adds a deliciously wicked edge to her writing and is one of the chief joys of reading May. I would not be surprised if she were taken with the idea of producing an out and out farce, as there are plenty of moments in her work when she allows her sense of the ridiculous to come out.
May also has a marked ability for the succinct evocation of character, and endows her creations with the unmistakeable aura of the unusual. In The Internationals, James Hargreaves, the British Vice Ambassador to Macedonia, is described as 'the sort of man who had lived his entire life during a single definitive week. He had crammed everything he would ever be capable of into that week and was now living in the aftermath'. When was it that this man was truly alive, truly able, and why is it that he has been reduced? Has he reduced himself? These questions are never answered. May leaves us with nothing but the knowledge that Hargreaves is not a man to be reckoned with. The quote is a fine illustration of the author’s way of unsettling expectation. She is a writer we should never attempt to predict. We often arrive at the end of her sentences in some amazement as to how the beginning could possibly have lead us to this final destination. Take this sentence from Spanish City as an example: 'the walls in the dormitory were that particular shade of grey walls go when they forget what colour they were once painted'. But for all her originality, May is not a verbal dazzler, a pyrotechnic stylist, or an incessant phrasemaker; her sentences serve her stories, and not the other way round. She is, above all else, a novelist, a storyteller.
Since 1999, Sarah May has published three novels, each of which is ambitious, courageous, and, in one way or another, demonstrative of a great natural talent. Her fiction possess a comedy both black and macabre, a certain quiet tenderness, and an attention to telling detail. She is inventive, ceaselessly original and has a voice which is both bold and undeniably unique. It would not be a surprise if she achieved much wider recognition. Without doubt, hers is a name to watch.
Garan Holcombe, 2006