A voyage round her father

BY JOAN SMITH EASY PEASY by Lesley Glaister Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
When Zelda was a child, her father's nightmares were so bad that his shouts and cries regularly woke the entire household. He was unusual in other ways as well, smothering his Swedish wife's cooking in fiery Tabasco sauce , intimidating the family with his chilly silences. Lesley Glaister's new novel opens years later with his suicide, an act which finally prompts the adult Zelda to ask questions about what she begins to understand as a strange childhood.

When the telephone rings with the bad news, Zelda is already in a troubled, highly emotional state. She suspects that her lover, Foxy, is about to leave her and she reacts to her father's death by staying awake most of the night, agonising over the loss she has just sustained and the one which may have been postponed by the terrible event. The loneliness of that long night, its terrors and abrupt mood-changes, are painfully evoked in prose which is as precise as it is unsparing.

Zelda's lack of curiosity about her father, especially about his experiences in a Japanese PoW camp, is inexplicable to Foxy, an academic whose passion - it goes well beyond the demands of her job - is collecting oral history from the elderly. This clever juxtaposition allows Glaister to suggest that neither woman has got it right, Zelda's almost wilful ignorance contrasting with Foxy's zealous appropriation of other people's pasts.

As it happens, the key to the mystery of her father's profound unhappiness has just been put into Zelda's hands in the form of what remains of his wartime diaries, which he unwisely entrusted to a fellow PoW who used some of the pages as lavatory paper in the camp. Scrappy and only just legible, the diaries reveal to Zelda the extent of the ordeal he went through - and lead her to face a dark episode from her own childhood.

These sections of the book, vividly recreating the embarrassment and resentment of a pubescent girl forced by her parents to play with the unprepossessing boy next door, show Glaister's writing at her best. Like her earlier novel, Digging to Australia, they display her ability to recreate the mind of a teenager, while supplying sufficient clues for an adult reader to work out what is really going on. Zelda and the boy, Vassily, are sympathetically drawn. Her eventual act of cruelty towards him is seen to come out of her immaturity and inability to cope with her parents' unreasonable demands.

The relevance of this story becomes clear towards the end of the book, when Zelda is forced into a reunion with the boy she tormented, now grown up. The meeting, delicately handled, faintly recalls other confrontations - specifically those, years later, between former PoWs and their erstwhile tormentors.

The irony is that it is Vassily, Zelda's former victim, who guides her towards the final piece of knowledge about her father - what he did in the camp which made him so self-tormenting - and to a gradual understanding of forgiveness. Revealing Glaister's ability to move between decades and emotional states without ever undermining the coherence of her narrative, Easy Peasy is at once compassionate and unflinching - probably the best novel yet, in a career already marked by notable successes.