Pick almost any paragraph on any page in any of Lesley Glaister's great fat pile of nine novels and you'll spot a combination of words snazzy enough to make your heart sing. Not only does she scrunch and shuffle the fabric of her prose with a naturalness and dexterity possessed by few, but she's equally sharp on the comedy of detail. With one slyly truthful observation or telling phrase, she can root out the whisker of hilarity that lurks within the sad, pathetic or terrible. She may be feted as a modern Gothic novelist, but she's also a sparkling miniaturist, social comedian and dauntless urban poet.
For the last decade or so, she's been giving us these clear, truthful novels, full of tension and bile, honest, embarrassing sex, domestic horror and familial lies. Yet despite the poetry and razzmatazz, they're resolutely low-key pieces, firmly devoid of any grand pretensions. And it's not that her latest does anything particularly new or different. Its territory - lonely, scuzzy, hard-up living, trauma and secrecy - will be pretty familiar to Glaister fans. But it does it better than ever. I'm sure it's her best.
Mostly it's in the voice. Part love story, part mystery, it boasts a protagonist so heartbreakingly well-realised that you are forced to live through her eyes, in her head, her heart, her skull. Lamb's narrative style - distinctive, deadpan, damaged - unnerves from the first page and holds you till the last. It's one of the most convincingly lonely and dislocated voices I've read.
But despite its dramatic ingredients - terrible personal secrets, violence, loss, a prisoner on the run - this is a small tale, linear and quietly told. We don't know why Lamb walked out of her life at 16 but, with both parents dead and no siblings, we know there wasn't a great deal to walk away from. Now she cleans for a living and furtively squats in the disused cellar of one of her elderly clients, the equally lonely, widowed Mr Dickens who regales her with tales, photos and newspaper clippings about his wife who - allegedly - spontaneously combusted.
Then Doggo turns up. Secretive, on the run from something or someone, foul-mouthed and monosyllabic, yet tender (and accompanied by two memorably wonderful, ever-present dogs called Gordon and Norma) Doggo scares Lamb not because of what crime he may or may not have committed, but because of what he might demand from her. Contact. Connection. The unravelling of her tightly controlled life.
Lamb walks a high wire of loneliness. If she makes no connections, allows no one in, if she keeps her arms "out, poised, eyes straight ahead", then she won't fall. And, though the novel's central abiding question is will she or won't she let Doggo into her life, her body, her world, it's actually this narrative high wire act that keeps us mesmerised.
Emotional numbness can be a powerful fictional tool. It allows a novelist to put a caricaturist's heightened spin on reality. Lamb scrutinises her world - often squalid, sometimes scary, always sad - with a scorching honesty that takes nothing for granted. She remembers more comfortable times - a time, for instance, when she had a mother and dreamt of going to medical school. So, this may be a book about secret and lies, but Lamb stands for blazing honesty, and - in some senses - openness.
My only disappointment is that when Lamb finally explains her life and her secret to Doggo, it seems both wrong and unwieldy that it comes out in a sort of chunk - a sudden jolting reminder that this is, after all, fiction - a place where backstories and plot devices lurk in the wings. Glaister's single narrative weakness, or a measure of how moved and credulous I was? Hard to tell, hard to know.
If only all fiction made us worry and care so hard, posed us such dreadfully difficult questions.
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