Laura Barnett’s latest book ‘Greatest Hits’ is not only a fictional retrospective of the life of British singer/songwriter Cass Wheeler, but also an exciting collaboration with (real) singer, songwriter Kathryn Williams.
Laura wrote one of my favourite books of the last couple of years ‘The Versions of Us‘, so I was excited to get my hands on a pre-publication version of her new book. Barnett takes us on a journey back down the decades through the eyes of a now 65-year-old Cass with each of the chapters starting with lyrics of one of her 16 songs.
All of us have songs that are hard-wired into our minds and bring back memories. Some happy and others not so much, I only have to hear the opening chords of the new song, ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba and I am back on the school bus in 1976. I can almost see the velour of the seat in front of me, smell the old fags from the seat’s ashtray and hope to goodness that my blue school beret won’t get used in a game of ‘let’s chuck Amanda’s things around the bus‘ again. And then there are other songs that are sometimes just a bit too painful, you know the ones. Cass is preparing for her back catalogue of songs, ones she has hardly dared listen to over the years, to be included in her Greatest Hits. As she plays each one, the memories come tumbling out on the page.
Her generation crossed the cultural rubicon from Post-War values through the youth revolution of the 60s, into the 70s and beyond, all of which provides a rich seam for mining in terms of storytelling. Laura does this well as she describes Cass’ early life as Vicar’s daughter Maria Cassandra, whose desperately unhappy mother defies convention and runs off leaving an indelible mark on the life of Maria (Cass) and her father. Musically precocious, but unaware at first of her talent, we follow Cass through the trials and tribulations of relationships and her musical progress from gigs in smoky pubs through to a successful career. Through her songs, we track the highs and lows, the successes and tragedies of her life and discover how music has the power to divide as well as unite.
I enjoyed the book, but I’m really looking forward to hearing Kathryn Williams bring life to the lyrics and colouring in the story of Cass. ‘Greatest Hits’ provides a British answer to other fictionalised singer-songwriter narratives such as the Coen Brothers ‘Inside Llewyn Davies’ and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a film is already being planned.
Greatest Hits’ is released on 15 June and is published by Weinfield & Nicholson.
Kathryn William’s accompanying album is released on iTunes and Spotify.