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Escape Room by Bryony Littlefair

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Published October 2022. Available for pre-order.

Escape Room embroiders the misadventures and surrealism of an ingenue’s clear-eyed wonder and cynicism in graduating high school, job interviews, work-life, atheism, and character portraits that are far from caricature. This is a collection exploring the possibilities of freedom, goodness, meaning and connection under late capitalism. Can we escape the imperatives of money, gender, and human fallibility to freely construct our own identities – should we even try?

This complexity is balanced with a resolute joy and humour. Bryony Littlefair’s poems are a delectable serving of postmodern irony, a contemporary Betjemanesque indictment on suburban, middle-class life, wryly observed with a razor-sharp wit, executed with warmth, honesty and precision that make this an irresistible and perspicacious collection.

Escape Room kickstarts with ‘After Graduating’ a reflection on Littlefair’s postcollegiate job as a cupcake baker, where “time is the finest sieve”. ‘First Job’ chronicles her magazine-flicking, shower gel shelf-filling, part-time squandering in Boots, and then a selection of prose poems highlights the Monty Python-eque absurdism of middle management micromanagement. This is delightfully exemplified in the ‘other kitchen’, where your mug choice is tantamount to a career move, the dashed ambitions of ‘The assistant’, the Tupperware politics of the communal fridge in ‘Lunch hour’ and the corporate bonding exercise that is the collection’s self-titled ‘Escape Room’. All of which underline the malcontent of our initial meanderings in the land of work and those who have remained festered in the malaise of job dis-satisfaction.

Littlefair’s vocational forays then take us into woefully familiar character portraits, such as the ‘Friend’, who is brimming with entrepreneurial ideas that never come to fruition, while Littlefair remains the loyal, indulgent yet mournful friend. We have mugshots of school bullies and frenemies in ‘Tara Miller’ and ‘Self-portrait at a high school graduation ceremony’; the anti- lovechild of High School Musical and the Breakfast Club, with the signature Claudia who is as “rich and sleek as a greyhound” with her “all-purpose viciousness”, but counterbalanced by the acknowledgment of her alcoholic mother and creepy father.

‘Sunday mornings’ and ‘Swallow’ represent the lapsed Christian’s confessional, whereas the absurdist afterlife is considered in ‘Heaven doesn’t have skirting boards’. We also have glimpses of the meta-poet where ‘In this poem you are in danger’, ‘I realised my life was the subplot’, as well as conversations with therapists in ‘Room’, ‘Fruits’ and ‘Some Therapists’.

Escape Room is the poetical equivalent of kitchen sink drama meets The Office and The Mighty Boosh. Absurdist, ironic, surreal yet rooted in AstroTurf reality, where the mundanities of everyday life of “eggs dreaming in their boxes” are escalated to a stranger hugging you at the cash till, mistaking you for their child.

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