A review of Waiting for Kate Bush by John Mendelssohn

Waiting for Kate Bush is a funny, fast-paced read. The characters are full of interesting Dickensian qualities, quirky parallels, and twists which tease out the theme—that nothing is quite what it seems. Fame is a fleeting and strange thing which others seek to feed off, and this is perhaps what ties Herskovit’s story to Bush’s.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Waiting for Kate Bush
by John Mendelssohn
Omnibus Press
2004, ISBN 1.84449.489.6, hardcover

It’s a cold night. Lesley Herskovits perches on the end of a tall tower block in London, ready to jump. Thus begins a story ostensibly about Herskovits, who has a serious image problem, imagining himself as grotesquely overweight and ugly, cowardly, and pining after the artist Kate Bush, whose next album shows no signs of appearing 11 years after The Red Shoes. The novel primarily takes place between the ledge and the final leap, either Herskovits’ only act of courage, or his biggest act of cowardice. Living at a boardinghouse for Kate Bush fans, Herskovits sends Bush e-mails, letters, and regular gifts, peppering his prose with pieces of Bush biography. His suffering is compounded by a fear of confrontation, a collapse in communication with daughter “Babooshka,” and sketchy relationships with landlady Mrs Cavenaugh, and fellow Overeater Anonymous member Nicola. An interesting sub-plot is formed around a television talent show called Fab Lab, a mock Idol for the disabled, where winners get voted for by other members and the studio audience.

Waiting for Kate Bush is a funny, fast-paced read. The characters are full of interesting Dickensian qualities, quirky parallels, and twists which tease out the theme—that nothing is quite what it seems. Fame is a fleeting and strange thing that which others seek to feed off, and this is perhaps what ties Herskovit’s story to Bush’s. Herskovits himself is a former model (the “Marcel Flynn pants bloke”), whose sense that he hideously ugly and overweight is countered by the reactions of other people to him—his landlady’s sympathetic shock when he tells her he can no longer fit outside of his door or make it down the steps for dinner, or the outrage of other truly fat members when he shows up for a meeting at Overeaters Anonymous. Although there is much of Kate Bush in this novel, it isn’t really a biography. Kate is ancilliary – a missing character that others use to offset their own neuroses. Her music surrounds the book, and is hummed, sung, quoted, and analysed. Her life is chronicled, timelined, and surmised. But she never appears, and the only thing we learn about her is what we gleam from published interviews or other people’s projections:

”I love Kate Bush,” I blurted. “Being nearer to her, in fact, is one of the reasons I moved to this country.” Their looking at me blankly inspired more bluring. “I find much of her later music inexpressibly beautiful. In my darketst hours, in my moment of peak despair, it gives me a reason to live. A world in which music of such beauty exists can’t be intolerable. That’s how I look at it.” (21)

That said, this is a book which will certainly appeal to Bush fans. The centre of the book contains attractive photographs, moving from Bush’s grammar school years to her most recent public appearance in 2002. Die-hard fans will probably know most of what the book contains, but will still enjoy the immersion. For more relaxed fans, the book will re-invigorate a sense of the music through the critical appraisals, lyric analyses, and performance highlights which are detaileded by the obsessive Herskovits. Characters like Cyril, Nicola’s father, a tiny hired thug who enjoys being brow-beaten by his huge wife, or Mrs Cavenaugh’s other lover, Mr Chumaraswamy, a self-proclaimed anti-bullying vigilante, are quirky and well drawn. But no one is exactly as they seem. Bully and bullied are often consentual. Self-image isn’t the same as other’s perception. Mendelssohn cleverly discredits his narrator early on. This creates an interesting tension which leaves the reader wondering about the real relationship between Herskovits and his daughter, or about his relationships with other characters in his life; his wife or his schoolyard experiences:

From the age of 15 until the time the girl who’d become my first girlfriend agreed to go out with me, I was myself a sidekick. Daring to imagine that one of their admirers might notice me, I insinuated myself into the entourages of a succession of good0looking, athletic, confident classmates – hating both mysel ffor having done so and them for having things I hadn’t, and perhaps never would have. But I didn’t come to be perceived as attractive by association.(186)

Unfortunately, this theme is only lightly touched upon, subsumed into the more overt purpose of ensuring that every opportunity to mention Kate Bush is taken, probably, one imagines, so that the large number of consumer hungry Bush fans will buy the book. That is a shame though, as there is a reasonably story here, and the way in which the plot twists and the worms turn is probably enough to make this into decent quality fiction. However, Mendelssohn sacrifices the story for the biography and for his own musical cleverness, which does a good job of trashing a wide range of musical and cultural icons. So this isn’t literary fiction, and can’t really be taken too seriously, especially with its ridiculous deus ex machina ending. That’s okay. Waiting for Kate Bush isn’t meant to be a serious read. It is, instead, a light, fun, easy piece of summer reading by a writer who is very capable and experienced at writing about popular music. Kate Bush fans will snap this up, while the rest of us will enjoy it for what it is, and find themselves listening to the Bush back collection with renewed vigour. Too bad Herskovits couldn’t wait just a little longer. Apparently a new Kate Bush CD is due for release in March 2005.

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