Book review - Underclass: A memoir by Dr Jessica Taylor

A review of Dr Jessica Taylor's new book - Underclass: A memoir

April 22, 2024

I've just finished reading Underclass. It took me about 3 sittings. This is a book you binge-read. You can't put it down. The reason it took three sittings is the same reason my writing is not my usual style here.

It's the most visceral book I've ever read. To explain a little, I grew up in and around Stoke on Trent, with a life reflected very much in this book. These things are hard for me to say, to accept, to process. 

This book is not just important because it's important to me, it's important, period. 

If you are a woman, the book will be painfully relatable. If you are a working-class woman, more so. If you are a working-class woman who has entered middle-class academia, it will burn you (in many ways both good and bad). It will imprint onto your soul. She weaves colourfully and intelligently through teen years, what it means to embody girlhood and womanhood and the class system that still controls 'Great' Britain.

If you are someone who appreciates the fine art of balancing humour, realism, and trauma, you will love it. You will love it no matter who you are because there simply are not enough books out there like this.

Jess has given us a gift. It's not just brave and generous to share the inner-most traumas, and intimate and joyful experiences of her life, it's necessary. Far too often, I will read good books, but they miss the mark. They may be informative, but too dry, intellectual, but full of pompous language that reinforces the walls/myths/tropes created to keep knowledge as some exclusive right or experience of the wealthy. Jess doesn't just take down walls. She gets a pneumatic drill and blows f*ck out of them!

In my life, I am saddened to say I play(ed) into the many roles she discusses, we all have. I have been the 'good girl', dedicated myself to the pursuit of kindness, at many times to my detriment. I even spent some of my academic early years trying to hide my Stoke accent. I quickly became ashamed of that self-denial and stopped a few years ago. But reading this book allowed me to reflect on so many of these life experiences. Who we are, who we want to be, what we want for ourselves, for our families, for women and children. I have experienced and witnessed workplace bullying and seen people cheated out of work and plagiarised. I am proud to say I stand tall and I do what is right and I call out what is wrong, always. That is something Stoke raised me to be, if we are anything, Stokies are brutally honest.

I have reflected on what part of my life was worse - was it growing up in Stoke with blatant, predictable violence and trauma that I learned to manage in survival mode over many years (though I must add, Stoke has an array of beautiful people - it's not all bad, as highlighted in the book) or is it the chessboard of academia? In academia, you won't get punched in the face for saying the wrong thing, or speaking in the wrong accent, but you might have your career slowly destroyed if you piss off the wrong person. 

Reading this book was a rollercoaster. It made me reflect upon the broader issues feminism often shies away from. The de-industrialisation of many working-class areas such as Stoke. Where Thatcher destroyed us all, both men and women, and how this feeds into MVAWC. We do need to have more empathy for each other, but we need to acknowledge the truths that exist: male violence is an epidemic and it clings to us from womb to tomb.

I felt so attached to Jess and not just because I know her personally. I wanted to save young Jess, I screamed for her, I punched the air for her, I rooted for her with every turn of the page, so gripped to know what happened next to her. I was doing all this for young Liz too. I was doing it for every girl and young woman I know. For my nieces, my students, for all of us.

I won't give any spoilers away, but this one is pretty clear to anyone aware of her career: the 'underdog' comes out on top. There is, however, nothing classless, under, or lesser about Dr Jessica Taylor. This book is for every young person who has ever been told they are not good enough. That they won't make it. That they don't belong. Jess is here to tell you otherwise: you do belong, you always did and you are awesome, so keep going and read this book if you need a little help along the way in your journey or if you just want to read a truly gripping book that will stay with you for a lifetime.

Jessica's memoir can be purchased from multiple sellers on Hachette UK including Amazon Underclass: A Memoir: Taylor, Dr Jessica: 9781408719923: Books.

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