BOOK REVIEW / A bad case of the unrequiteds: 'St Patrick's Daughter' - Margaret Mulvihill: Hodder, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE lives of the saints play an important part in Margaret Mulvihill's third novel. The chapters are interspersed with mock-Gothic accounts of various holy personages whose vices, in her version, are as celebrated as their virtues. For the initiated - that is, any Irish schoolgirl for whom The Lives of the Saints was a standard text - Mulvihill's alternative portrayal is doubly subversive, since the saints we were supposed to emulate indulged in all sorts of self-denying penance (mortification, flagellation and the like) which for the more knowing would not have been out of place in a high-class brothel.

Margaret Mulvihill's tale focuses on Jacinta Murphy, daughter of the feckless Eugene, who is sent by her mother to London to make a career for herself. But those expecting a rite-of-passage novel - innocent Catholic girl coming of age in godless Albion - are mercifully disappointed. Jacinta is not the product of your standard Irish girlhood. For a start, her parents are separated. Hapless Ma works in Dublin keeping the dead files in a hospital and takes lovers whose suitability is tested by whether they can get cash refunds on the ill-fitting shoes for which she has a weakness. Father boards at a lodging-house in Camden, living off his one moment of fame - a role as St Patrick in a never completed film saga about Ireland's patron saint.

Mrs Duggan, landlady of the lodgings on Hebden Street, is the character closest to an Irish mammy, a woman who runs a household of unattached males (confirmed bachelors in the Irish sense rather than the tabloid one) and who purports to want to move back to Ireland, but not before she has successfully made matches for all of her charges. It is from this ramshackle household that Jacinta is expected to launch herself into society.

Her first job, as a cloakroom attendant in a nightclub, is followed briskly by work as a char for a rich American gent in Pimlico who is allergic to house dust. She finally ends up flogging her mother's cast- off shoes in a second-hand clothes shop. If none of this represents upward social mobility, then that is entirely deliberate.

The ghost of Flann O'Brien haunts this picaresque novel, with its peculiarly Irish predilection for malapropisms and word-play - Mrs Bugler, a florid patron of the arts, is a 'cholesterol blonde'; a triptych painting becomes a tripleditch; 'Fin de Siecle', the aforementioned junk shop, is reduced to Find the Sickle. 'Interesting Facts' (eg, the best ironers always get the worst husbands) pepper the narrative. Even Jacinta's sexual blossoming is thwarted by comic circumstance as Hector, for whom she has the 'unrequiteds', runs off with her father's girlfriend. By this stage, anyway, his parentage - and Jacinta's own - has become so confused that they may well be brother and sister.

All, of course, ends badly with Eugene's untimely death (a jogger's leap). His ribald wake is attended by all the women in his life, each desperate to claim their portion of him. Jacinta emerges, if not older and wiser, then clear of his rakish shadow, and by far the most mature character in the midst of a host of middle-aged juveniles passing themselves off as adults.

Mulvihill has a deft comic touch and a sure hand with verbal slapstick. The irreverent subtext, littered with the superstitious vocabulary of the catechism - purgatory, baptisms of desire, the children of Fatima - brings alive the world of Irish Catholicism, in all its richness and trumpery, far more effectively than a grim dose of realism. And the author's refusal to rein in her comic world, to make it conform, renders this novel as gloriously chaotic as life itself.