Book Review: Underbelly by Anna Whitehouse

I have followed Anna Whitehouse (@mother_pukka) on social media for a while, and then recently she’s been a maternity cover for the afternoon show on our local West Midlands Heart radio station – which I have long listened to and blogged about and so I feel like I’ve got to know her better (I’m not a weird stalker, honest!) I knew that Anna had written non fiction books with her husband Matt Farquharson, and then heard her talking about their first foray into fiction on the Scummy Mummies podcast. Yes – I did write ‘their’, and no it does just say Anna Whitehouse on the cover. This is apparently because fiction books can only have one named author – who knew!?! This also makes sense when other writing duos have chosen a pen name – such as Ellery Lloyd with ‘People Like Her’ – I hadn’t realised the significance of having a single name. (There endeth the random lesson in fiction publishing.)

Anyway – Anna’s description of ‘Underbelly’ really appealed, so I immediately requested – and was kindly granted – a copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review – so here we go. For anyone who hasn’t heard Anna’s synopsis (but the Scummy Mummies podcast is always good for LOLs, so maybe use Anna’s episode as a taster?) here’s the blurb:

UNDERBELLY
[n.] singular
The soft underside or abdomen of a mammal.
An area vulnerable to attack.
A dark, hidden part of society.

Lo and Dylan are living parallel lives, worlds apart.
Lo is the ultimate middle-class mother, all perfectly polished Instagram posts and armchair activism.
Dylan is just about surviving on a zero-hours telemarketing job from her flat, trying to keep food on the table.
But when they meet at the school gates, they are catapulted into each other’s homes and lives – with devastating consequences . . .
Explosive, sharply humorous and unflinchingly honest, Underbelly slices through the filtered surface of modern women’s lives to expose the dark truth beneath.

The book is told from the point of view of two Mums – Lois and Dylan, as described above – living incredibly different lives. Their paths cross – well actually paths physically bump into each other – before their kids start at the same primary school in reception, but when the kids become friends, Lo and Dylan become better acquainted.

Now – very early on in the book there is an incredibly graphic miscarriage scene. I’m very fortunate that I’ve had 4 straightforward pregnancies, and never lost a baby, but I can imagine this could be quite difficult for some people to read. In fact that book doesn’t shy away from heavy topics at all – with self harm, loneliness, suicide and emotional and physical abuse all woven through the storyline – but not in an off putting way, it’s just not a light and fluffy read – despite the pink cover.

Lo was incredibly self absorbed and self obsessed – desperate to get likes / hit the algorithms / keep her management and sponsors happy / respond to all of her followers comments and messages. This definitely made me think that there is more to this Instamum lark than just posting photos of your neutral kids in your neutral home with your neutral husband. Lo is also worried about a site called Influenza – where people can anonymously slag off Instamums or other celebrities without fear of reprisal. I saw in other reviews that this was based on a site called Tattle – which I’d never heard of. I made the mistake of going on there and it is VICIOUS. It’s also pretty sad that some people have so little going on it their lives that they spend their time forensically dissecting posts on Instagram to then go and slag posters off on Tattle to like minded individuals. Just plain horrible.

Meanwhile Dylan was having a really tough time of it as single Mum, on the run from an abusive ex (and her son Noah’s father) and trying to earn a living cold calling selling water coolers (again, it made me decide to be slightly less rude to cold callers to my office in the future).

The friendship between Lois’s daughter Scout and Dylan’s son Noah starts on the first day of Reception – and it really showed that kids don’t care who is who in the playground – they like who they like.

In the middle of the book I did feel like the storyline didn’t really go anywhere for a while – but I guess that cleverly reflects the relentlessness and monotony of both motherhood and Instamums??

Lo tries to help Dylan – by giving Noah free clothes, paying her to use Noah’s image in some posts, sharing Dylan’s blog to all of her followers – and this helps Dylan in her aspirations as a writer – but it does all very much feel like Lady Bountiful Lo helping poor little Dylan.

Then various turns of events cause everything to go tits up for both women – and this is written brilliantly with the momentum of everything spiralling out of control totally consuming. It really makes you think how one error of judgment can cause someone to be completely cancelled. Frightening really.

And I was left wanting to know what happened to the women and their children next – which is always the sign of a good book.

Overall it was a really interesting and thought provoking read. It’s definitely made me stop and think. I wasn’t going to subscribe to Tattle or anything – but when I recently described an Instamum’s feed as ‘vacuous shite’ to a friend, it made me realise I can just click the ‘unfollow’ button, it doesn’t affect me one iota, and she can post whatever she wants – meanwhile I’ll go and find someone with content I find more inspiring. Knowing that the book has been written from a place of personal experience by Anna Whitehouse also makes it all the more relevant and meaningful.

A big thank you to NetGalley and Orion Books for my advance review copy – and it’s out later this week if you are interested in delving behind the social media curtain yourself!

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