BOOK REVIEW / Baring it all in a house of close secrets: 'Digging to Australia' - Lesley Glaister: Secker, 13.99
Known for her human rights activism and writing on subjects such as atheism and feminism, Joan Smith is a columnist, critic and novelist. An Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a regular contributor to BBC radio, she has written five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC.
Sunday 23 August 1992
Jennifer, the narrator, is at that awkward stage of adolescence when the prime object in life is to seem as ordinary as possible. Her affection for the elderly couple she has been taught to address as Mama and Bob is temporarily eclipsed by embarrassment over their age and - excruciating torment - the fact that Bob is a committed naturist, a memorable comic creation who subjects Jennifer to the torment of the 'daily dozen' - nude physical jerks for all the family - in obedience to his ideals of health and efficiency. His unselfconscious nudity is a piece of domestic tyranny which prevents Jennifer from inviting her schoolfriends home: 'I couldn't let anyone else see his giblets and his great round woolly bottom, all creased from his chair. Word would have gone round and they would never have stopped laughing.'
Bob's eccentricity is also a metaphor for what is wrong with Jennifer's home life. This is a house in which everyone is forced to bare all, yet it is built on secrets. Having celebrated her 13th birthday in June, Jennifer is astounded by a casual announcement that her 'real' birthday is in November; Mama and Bob are really her grandparents, who agreed to bring her up when her mother fled to Australia rather than face the shame of unmarried motherhood.
The inhibitions and deceptions of this would-be loving household - Mama and Bob are guilty of nothing more than emotional ineptitude - turn Jennifer into a rebellious and vulnerable loner. She finds refuge in an overgrown playground, spying on the inhabitants of a bleak new housing estate from the top of the climbing frame, but soon discovers that the disused church next door harbours a much greater challenge, in the shape of a young man called Johnny - sinister, romantic and quite possibly unhinged.
There are more Gothic touches as Johnny moves purposefully round the old building, lighting its lofty interior with candles and constructing a vast wooden structure whose purpose, only gradually revealed, is an adult's version of the childish fantasy of escape which opens the novel. Excited by Johnny's unpredictable moods and her apparent ability to handle a potentially dangerous relationship, Jennifer says nothing to her grandparents, even when local girls begin to go missing.
Glaister is adept at formless threat. Her characters are never merely grotesque, but are written with a human sympathy which denies simple categorisation. The atmosphere is all the more scary because events are mediated through the eyes of a clever but volatile adolescent whose identity has been eroded by a well-meant but disastrous lie. Jennifer's shifting loyalties, her precarious innocence, are skilfully evoked in an outstanding novel which confirms Glaister's command of the domestic and the bizarre.
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