Jackie McGlone

RARELY can a slender debut novel have been freighted with so much advance praise as Emma Glass’s Peach, which is barely 100-pages long. The book – almost a novella-cum-prose-poem – is so slim that you can fit your thumbnail between the covers. Yet, it is unlike anything else I have ever read.

Which is presumably why one literary heavyweight after another is queueing up to shower plaudits on 30-year-old Glass’s dark, daring work.

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George Saunders, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017 for his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, believes that Glass is “an immensely talented young writer... Her fearlessness renews one’s faith in the power of literature... A strange and original work of art that manages to be both genuinely terrifying and undeniably joyful... In this dark, poetic myth, Emma Glass takes on the big issues: good and evil, violence and redemption.”

Kamila Shamsie advises: “Choose wisely the moment when you pick up Peach; because once you do you’ll be unable to put it down until the very last sentence,” while Lucy Ellmann regards Peach as “a work of genius. So lonesome and moving, so gruesome, wry, tender and plaintive. It is the new Jane Eyre, and one wild, thrilling ride. Swallow it in one gulp, and carry a spare copy in your pocket. Always.”

“Wow!” I exclaim when I talk to Swansea-born, North London-based Glass, who read English Literature and Creative Writing at Kent University (“because English was the thing I was OK at”), but who is now a senior paediatric research nurse at Evalina London Children’s Hospital, where she has just finished work for the day.

“I know, it's surreal!” she says, in her soft, lilting Welsh accent, when I quote some of the above. “It hasn’t really sunk in. I still can’t believe it. It really is incredible to have those things said about me, although I really struggle to believe that they are true – as does my family. I said, ‘Did you know I’ve written a work of literary genius?’ They think I’m the ditsy one so they just say, ‘No, we can’t believe it either!’ Actually, they’re so supportive, although I don’t think my dad will ever read it.”

Early reviews are equally admiring – “a book to be devoured in a single sitting” (Vogue) and “[Peach] packs one hell of a punch” (Guardian). The book opens: “Thick stick sticky wet ragged wool winding round the wounds, stitching the sliced skin together as I walk, scraping my mittened hand against the wall. Rough red bricks ripping the wool. Ripping the skin.”

It is dark, we are told. “The blood is black. Dry. Crack crackly crackling.” Glass’s heroine is a battered, bruised, bleeding teenage girl – the eponymous Peach – struggling to get home after being violently sexually assaulted by a man known as Lincoln. In powerfully poetic, thrillingly stylised, experimental prose, Glass relates in vivid, visceral, stomach-churning stream-of-consciousness the appalling physical and psychological after-effects of rape as Peach attempts to protect herself and her boyfriend, Green, from her rapist. “I see black. His black mouth. A slit in his skin. Open. Gaping.” And, “I see the slits in his face open wide when he sees me, black slits opening wide, inside is blackened pink pig gristle.”

While at university, Glass began the unique piece of writing that has borne the strange fruit that is Peach, which she acknowledges is influenced by the “brilliance” of her literary heroes, from Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Dylan Thomas to Kate Bush and American multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Justin Vernon.

But how did an English Literature graduate, with hopes of becoming a full-time writer, end up in the nursing profession?

“When I graduated in 2008, the recession hit,” she says. “I went home to Swansea, planning to get a job, but over that summer it got really bad. I couldn’t get any work at all. I had wanted to earn enough money to get my Master’s in Creative Writing. It was such a difficult time – I was being turned down for jobs at Tesco; then I was turned down for jobs as a cleaner. I became pretty despondent, so I thought about nursing because I knew that if I did [qualify] I would never be out of work and I would learn skills that meant I would always be useful – my mum, Christine, is a nurse and we have similar natures. (Her father, Robert, is a pipe-fitter/plumber.)

“Luckily, the Welsh Assembly supports nurses by making it possible to do a second degree. I got a small bursary to tide me over, but when I graduated in 2011, the same thing happened – there were no nursing jobs in Wales.”

She moved to London, where her sister, Kate, who is two years older and a community health worker (“She’s a boss but I can’t remember her title – she’ll kill me!”), was living. For two years, Glass nursed at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, where children suffering from “wonderful and weird conditions and extreme disorders” are treated and where, she points out, they also have the best chance of surviving.

“There were so many sad stories but incredibly happy experiences, too,” she recalls of her time in oncology, haematology and transplant surgery wards. “I was on the cutting-edge of medicine there but I didn’t feel that I was doing the most I could for children, although I was making a difference: I could make a kid smile, I could offer pain relief. But I got burnout. I seemed to be always giving and giving but it didn’t make the sort of difference I wanted to make. I’m a perfectionist!

“I needed time to decompress. Then I decided to go into research because it takes our work a step further. By collating all the evidence we can find into extremely rare conditions, our research can eventually be put into practice offering treatment options that would never be available on the NHS. I feel we make a difference to the bigger picture – it’s about the future of medicine and nursing, paving the way for novel treatments. It’s really exciting, so fulfilling!”

Today, she manages a team of nurses researching genetics – “I’m Sister grade,” she explains. They are currently studying achondroplasia, a skeletal condition which is a form of dwarfism. “It is fascinating work.”

Growing up she was fascinated by writing and the imagination. “But when I couldn’t go back to get my Master’s, I shelved the idea of becoming a writer, although Peach was part of my dissertation. The idea was to go back to it and submit it for my Master’s, because it was for me an exercise in post-modern language. I never expected it to be published or read by anyone. Then I fell out of love with writing and reading – which was odd because I was always a big reader – when I was studying for my nursing degree. With nursing you are never truly off duty, so I didn’t pick up any fiction for more than two years.”

In London, she eventually reconnected with university friends, who kept asking what had become of “that weird thing” she was writing at university. “I had completely lost confidence in my writing. Two-and-a-half-years ago I had a break-up and moved in with a writer friend. She was a great influence on me. She sat me down at the kitchen table every evening– and rewarded me with Maltesers for completing a certain number of words.

“Suddenly, I started writing seriously again. I pretty much picked up where I left off, after the first four chapters of Peach, about 10,000 words. I wrote the last half of the book in a frenzy over about three or four months. I was worried that people would see the two halves of the book. I know where the restart is but no one has picked up on it – yet.

“There was some negativity from my university lecturer towards Peach, because it was not plot-driven, but my focus has always been on language and the imagery. I’ve a short attention span anyway. I do think, however, that the landscape of mainstream fiction is changing and perhaps there’s a gap there now that means Peach might get read and remarked upon, although I’m aware that it will divide people.”

How is she handling all the acclaim and the notice being taken of her and her novel? “I am still going about my regular life. I’m very private about my writing so my nursing colleagues don’t really know about it. But I’m so embarrassed that I’ve dropped the c-bomb in the book – I would never do that at work or in my life.

“As for the future, I’ve just started my second novel, which will be published by Bloomsbury. It’s definitely not Peach Part 2. It’ll be longer – I need to push myself. I love nursing so much, however. I will always maintain that. I’ll always be a nurse, although this is such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a writer I have to make the most of it. It’s like a fairytale.”

Peach, by Emma Glass (Bloomsbury Circus, £12.99).