This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
Kate Tough performed on 11th August 2014.

by Karyn Dougan

The audience were warmed up for Kate Tough’s event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival despite the horrid weather. Sharing the stage with fellow author Emma Jane Unsworth and chair Kirsty Logan, Tough welcomed everyone with a cheery wave and big smile before reading from her new book Head For The Edge, Keep Walking.

Tough is a Scottish writer and poet who received her Masters in Creative Writing from Glasgow University. Her poems have appeared in various publications, such as Gutter Magazine, 26 Treasures and fourfold 2, to name but a few. When she hasn’t been busy publishing her poetry, Tough runs an extraordinary amount of writing workshops for all levels and ages, as well as finding time to be a key member of the National Association of Writers in Education and recently publishing her first novel with Cargo Publishing.

Tough is one of the exciting new voices at EIBF this year, with her novel in the run for the First Book Award. And rightly so: Tough is a natural-born storyteller. As soon as she began, the audience were transfixed by the antics of Jill Beech, the heroine of the story. Jill’s nine-year relationship has finished – cue a long line of bad internet dates, going out dancing with supportive but slightly mad mates and general wonderings about how everyone she knows seems to have got their lives together with seeming ease. No sooner is she starting to make headway that life flips, and between kittens, jobs and that snowboarding champion, Jill has to get her life together before she falls over the edge…

Tough’s style, much like her characters, is quirky and endearing, making her writing accessible and easy to get lost in. Reading a part in the novel where Jill is walking home from the cancer clinic and finds some mangled baby birds, Tough manages to make the scene both hilarious and heartbreaking:

Head for the Edge

What on earth’s happening here?

I look up and see a commotion of leaves and hear squawking that I now recognise has been going on the whole time, I just hadn’t connected it to my situation. A large bird, glossy-black, is moving around a nest.

“Yaahhh!” I yell. “Yaahhh!”

I have to make it stop what it’s doing. It’s not even finishing a whole one. Taking a few bites before flinging it out.

“Yaahhh!” I scream. “Stop it! Bastard bird, stop!”

Why doesn’t it eat what it needs and go?

Two half-open, wholly alive birds. Cheeping. Cheeping. With me as their solution. I’m the kind to stop and help – I don’t know how to finish a thing off.

Drowning. Folk do that, don’t they? It’s kinder than leaving them lying on the path with their pecked, fleshless backs, for how long; hours? Till who finds them? Kids, a fox, no-one, death, their mother? […]

I may think I know about drowning but I don’t know about weighting a thing down. I don’t know, on this bridge, that mangled baby birds dropped from a bag into a flowing river float on the current, so you have to watch them undulate away, till you can’t hear their confused, grateful tweeting anymore and eventually, eventually… can’t see them, when the river at last rounds its bend. They were meant to sink and suffocate. I will run after them to a spot where it’s shallower. Wade in and rescue the ripped-open cold mess of them. Phone the SSPCA. Confess.

I didn’t know what to do.

I made it worse.

Tough’s reading really brought Glasgow to life: you felt like you were walking the streets with the characters, it felt so real and familiar.  With sharp outbreaks of laughter in the aisles, it’s rare that a writer manages to find the balance between outrageously funny situations and those heart-breaking moments. You don’t expect it from the outset, but Head For The Edge really is an unexpected modern masterpiece. And the fact that this is her first book only demonstrates the talent that Tough possesses. Jill Beech acts as a mirror in which readers can see their own painful vulnerability — a beautifully flawed character that you can really root for through all the ups and downs. Inevitably, with such strong women on the panel, the issue of feminism was eventually raised. I’ve heard Head For the Edge described as “the new Bridget Jones” but it is far superior. Tough’s book in particular is one of the very few that successfully captures the life of the 21st century woman without patronising or piss-taking.  Its wit and warmth glows on the page, and offers a refreshingly honest reflection of the thirty-something woman of today. 

But when it comes down to it, Head For The Edge isn’t a comedy – it’s ultimately an exploration of the human condition; the pitfalls we face and that moment when we realise that “the plan” isn’t coming together. It’s a tribute to the lost thirty-somethings who are still experiencing that “quarter-life crisis”, who can recognise themselves in a sometimes hapless character. Despite the occasional poignancy and quiet revelations, the prose is never weighed down by the seriousness, as Tough proved with her light and playful performance which was met with great applause.

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