BOOK REVIEW / Truth and dare in a town named Verity: 'Turtle Moon' - Alice Hoffman: Macmillan, 14.99

Alice Hoffman's account of small-town life in Florida opens with so many references to junk American culture that the reader might assume that this is another fashionably deadpan contemporary novel, about people who lead aimless lives in a place where nothing much ever happens.

The characters go to Burger King and Pizza Hut and the Winn Dixie. Most of the women in town are sad divorcees addicted to Diet Dr Pepper. Four pages into the first chapter, a delinquent 12-year-old named Keith Rosen is 'dizzy from the Miller Lites he drank and the half pack of Marlboros he chain-smoked'. And he hates the town that his mother has brought him to: 'Nothing ever happened in Verity. That was a fact.'

Yet Keith (and those who read about him) are soon proved wrong. Lots of things happen in Verity. A woman is murdered, and Keith runs away with her baby. Keith's mother, Lucy, must find her son and prove his innocence. Along the way - as you might also expect in a town called Verity - she finds herself, and true love, with a mean, moody cop named Julian Cash. Keith finds himself, too, and so does Julian Cash, which provides a satisfyingly tidy ending.

But Turtle Moon is more than a neatly written psychological thriller. Just when you've settled down to follow a clever plot, Hoffman casually mentions that an angel lives in Verity. OK, so he wears blue jeans and a white T-shirt and watches 'a Delta flight headed north to La Guardia', but he is an angel nevertheless. And the angel, who can see into the future as well the past, remembers a time when Julian Cash was a boy who cried little rocks instead of tears.

Hoffman's great skill is gently to remind you that you can never be too complacent about other people's lives, which may be more complicated than they look. The truths she reveals are certainly more complicated than the story of the murderer and his victim that Cash chooses to tell his police chief. ' 'I think my story would look great on your record,' Julian says. 'It doesn't have any loose ends.' ' But the chief, who is a good guy, has the sense to acknowledge that 'he'll never know what happened here'.

Lucy, too, who writes obituaries for the local newspaper, realises that, although she understands far more about the murder than the police chief, she could never tell the true story of the murdered woman: 'Lucy would have to stick to the simple facts, and they don't even begin to tell the story of someone's life.'

So she resigns from her job, and gets into a Mustang, and drives to the local 7-Eleven to buy groceries. And later, perhaps, she will enjoy some true love and happiness. For Alice Hoffman knows that although ordinary people spend a great deal of time doing ordinary things, they may also lead exciting and dangerous and thrilling lives.

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