An epic piece of work that makes very bold choices.
Review by Suzanne Harrington
‘My name is Molly Jenson.
I’ve been homeless since I was fifteen.
My favourite book is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
My favourite place to sleep is in hospital chapels.
Sometimes I see things that other people don’t.
I try not to think about the last thing too much.’
Molly insists ‘This is a happy story. This is an adventure.’ Her story is exciting, a quest modelled on Dorothy and the yellow brick road, where Toto is a three-legged girl dog called Boy, and the Wicked Witch is her violent, manipulative ex, Rusby. Actually, there are quite a few wicked witches in Mahsuda Snaith’s fresh, original novel, as well as companion characters variously lacking brains, hearts and courage. Molly’s yellow brick road stretches from Nottingham to Skegness via Bingham – through places the rest of us never see. Squats and station toilets and cold dank corners. Characters called Private Pete, Dodgy Mike, Robin Hood.
How To Find Home could be a real misery-fest. It has all the components – street homelessness, trauma, addiction, violence, poverty, mental ill health, abuse ranging from parental and psychological to sexual, all happening in plain sight as respectable society studiously looks away. Loss, betrayal, rejection, it’s all in there: ‘It can make you numb, the homeless life. From the cold, yes, but also the way no one sees you.’
But it’s not miserable at all. Like Molly says, it’s a happy story. What could have been heavy and dark has been painted light and kaleidoscopic, its telling deceptively simple. Molly’s world view is humane and optimistic, even as she drags her damage around with her. Everything is chirpy, matter-of-fact, from her advice on how to magically disappear by sitting on a pavement and placing a paper cup in front of you (‘Ta-dah! My first trick in becoming invisible’) to how homeless people are perceived by society: ‘Pedestrians can’t stand groups of homeless together…They like to think of us as lonely types with no community. If you’re by yourself, people can identify and sympathise, then they feel alienated and resentful. Simple psychology really.’
Molly acts as a myth-smasher, taking on our preconceived ideas: ‘People think the homeless have nothing to do with their families, but most keep some contact.’ Hanging out with Luca, a middle-class character, ‘Suddenly the holes in my jeans were a fashion choice. We were students on a gap year and not two fuck-ups.’
Amid these observations, the narrative picks up pace; the reveals build, until your empathy for Molly – is that even her real name? – crescendos. She morphs from a sunny Dorothy to something far more fragile and wounded, with toads and pigeons and rubber bands providing hallucinatory interludes as she unravels.
But it’s a happy story. Warm, humorous, engaging, its grittiness shot through with a sense of wonder and magic alongside a stoic acceptance of what is. Molly’s home is not a building, but a state of mind: ‘Home was the place you felt safe. Home was the place you were respected. Home was the place you were loved. And right then, home was outside the Tourist Office with Robin Hood.’