Yrsa Daley Ward's 'The Terrible' is as far from terrible as it gets


It was 12:33 am on June 7th when I finished reading The Terrible within three hours of picking it up. As an overzealous fan of her book of poetry, Bone, I had preordered The Terrible with great anticipation. I surprised myself at how quickly I finished it but I attribute that to the book's magnetic quality in denoting how 'terrible' things are a part of lived experiences. I was happy to discover that the structure and fluency of her writing equally contributed to how natural it was to read.


The combination of prose and poetry made the story fluid to follow.  Furthermore, the structure of the book with chapters referencing ages gives the book its irregular and believable timeline that could be seen to mirror inevitable gaps in memory as well as how looking at events in retrospect exposes the instability of our human timelines in terms of the unavoidable selectivity of moments which we recall.


The Terrible traces the emotional difficulties Yrsa faced from childhood into adulthood. Her upbringing appeared to be filled with miscommunication from her Jamaican mother Marcia who raised her alone, with fairytales of Yrsa's father, a seemingly invisible Nigerian man, she 'never knew him'. There was the understandable frustration at her mother's boyfriends that became an unwanted and often temporary part of the family furniture. In addition to this, what was interesting was the cultural limbo she faced from being black in a predominantly white-British town, a strong sense of alienation is indicated. 


Her childhood world is one filled with her using her imagination to escape from the bleak details of everyday life, escapism that becomes more urgent when she moves in with her staunchly religious Seventh Day Adventist grandparents. Her grandparents appear to be the source of her repression as they can hardly leave the house unless for church or school. However, comic and subtle hints at their human frailty are hinted at, with references to her grandmother's reading habits 'Sometimes she reads romance novels, I know because I've seen them'. Yrsa has the gift of bringing the mundane to life, perhaps by highlighting the contradictions that define human behaviour. 


Disrupted attachment, the instability of her parental relationships appear to have impacted her very strongly, and there is a sense of her relative desensitisation to the emotional labour of familial relationships. Yrsa comments on one of her mother's many boyfriends, Terrence, 'who cheats on her but is otherwise fine'. These straightforward comments show Yrsa's strong sense of the 'terrible' in relation to family relationships, with hardly offer her the acceptance she needs to grow. However, 'Little Roo' her younger brother could be seen as the one exception to Yrsa's lack of reliable companionship growing up. 


 The imaginary journeys she embarks on are lucid and seem to encompass the good, the bad and obviously the terrible and mark a timeline stretching from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Her curiosity appears to never be dampened in adulthood. The sense of danger Yrsa describes is one that morphs and shifts with time, inescapable, as it appears across her timeline. She uses the colour red as a symbol of danger, and it casts a shadow over the text, resurfacing in dark moments. For instance, when her unsavoury stepfather visits  'red was on the horizon', indicating the strong sense of negativity created by his prescence. 


However, Yrsa's imaginary journeys are not always capable of making grim, 'terrible' realities bearable. Body image is explored, as Yrsa is considered 'pretty' by adults but senses that her identity as a black female hardly aligns with beauty standards. In fact, sometimes, imaginary journeys intensify negative feeling, as in the case of 'mirror land' which she visits on a daily basis, questioning her beauty. Through the mirror she identifies 'large eyes and too much thickness and black black skin...contradictions in the dark', it serves as areminder of her alienation as a black female in a 'sea of white'. The mirror is a place of negative self-scrutiny, a place of hate. Moreover, Yrsa's capacity for imagination is a brilliant thing but in its totality, includes both the good and the terrible.


Yrsa explores those subjects deemed too controversial to discuss with a striking openness. Mental health is discussed on in terms of 'going under' with the sinking feeling that comes and goes, everything 'feels pitch grey'. Sexuality is also investigated in terms of  the duality of it in the context of women; 'powerfear'. That is, the fear of ones own sexuality as well as the power that comes with the attention received, which also ushers in feelings of danger. Yrsa experiences 'powerfear' in different ways and to different degrees, from exploring same sex intimacy to unwanted male attention from catcalling builders, to sex work, to avoiding the slimy fathers of friends. Overall, Yrsa's openness could be seen as what enables readers to connect with her story, and encourages healing and growth. Despite the book being a memoir, the sense of familiarity experienced by readers is surreal and what indicates Yrsa's storytelling gift.


As described by Florence Welch, the book truly is 'like holding the truth in your hands'. The sensory detail of experiences and depth of emotion never feel forced but believable and you, the reader, are fully immersed in that world. Perhaps the believability of it comes from the fact that all of us have experienced some sort of 'terrible' in our lives. She is a master at deconstructing and conveying the childlike wonder that gives her artistic insight into the good but especially the dark. Yrsa Daley Ward is magic, that is all. 

Funmi Lijadu