BOOK REVIEW / Southern fried cry-babies: Starcarbon - Ellen Gilchrist: Faber, pounds 14.99

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IF YOU are a reader who runs a mile from a family tree, who yawns at the thought of the American deep South or Cherokee Indians, who distrusts hopeful endings or characters recycled from previous novels, be warned that all of the above are on offer here. Yet this is family saga of a very superior order, featuring characters of genuine depth and some wit, who actually grow more interesting through their personal dramas, which are narrated in a prose so impeccable you could eat your biscuits and gravy off it.

My few quibbles with this novel are that psychiatry is too much with us, and there is far too much talk of bonding. Even our heroine, Olivia, finally snaps at her doctor: 'Stop telling me about interrupted bonding' - and so say I.

The members of Gilchrist's two ongoing fictional families, the Hands and the Mannings, phone their psychiatrists at all times of day or night requiring feed-back or active intervention in their life-plots. These are not shrinks who sit back and say hmmmmm. One advises Olivia to quit fussing about cancer and start taking birth control pills so she can conquer her intimacy problems, which are due to not bonding properly with her Indian mother who died giving birth to her.

Olivia is a convincing life force, half Cherokee. She learnt in her teens that her daddy was a rich South Carolina gentleman, Daniel Hand, who would be all too happy to do some bonding. The women in Daniel's family are always running away. Olivia's mother fled back to her Cherokee parents. His sister Helen got bored with waiting for her five children to grow up and went to live with an Irish poet in Boston. Daniel's sister Anna, a spectre hanging over all their lives and much of Gilchrist's fiction, committed suicide. Daniel's other daughter, Jessie, has just left him to marry a drug-loving distant cousin in New Orleans.

The chief source of havoc in these lives is drink and drugs. Daniel is drinking so heavily his friends and relations stage one of those 'interventions' a la Betty Ford, where everyone sweeps in saying 'we are here because we love you'. Olivia is just about to hurdle her bonding difficulties with an appealing rodeo star when his daddy is busted for trafficking drugs, so she is not sure whether the lately acquired Southern relations will consequently consider him to be white trash.

Besides following her psychiatrist's instructions, Olivia also toys with her grandfather's Cherokee therapy, 'finding the light to see by'. Gilchrist handles her native American theme lightly, and paranormal Cherokee powers are echoed by telepathic gifts and a deep respect for dreams and portents throughout the dramatis personae. What she appears to suggest is that if her overly cultivated Southern characters had a few more wild frontiers to conquer, they might have less time to contemplate their neuroses. As Olivia observes, 'We don't even know how to build a house anymore or get water for ourselves . . . This whole country is a bunch of cry-babies babying themselves, morning, night and noon.'

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