BOOK REVIEW / Ways of seeing in the underworld: Lost children by Maggie Gee: HarperCollins, pounds 14.99

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THIS, perhaps the most elegiac of Maggie Gee's novels to date, opens with an evocation of an imaginary landscape where hopes and dreams can be preserved, where pictures of what we love can be arranged in a kind of photo-album of the unconscious: 'What if nothing is lost, nor can ever be lost? What if time is still happening? What if we are the kind of creature we dream of being . . . What if the children are there already? Millions of them. The uncountable lost ones. Loud as life, running, laughing. Sun on the black, the ash-blonde, the auburn. Myself, yourself, my mother, my father. Still young, still potential. All the lost children.' The lack, here, of an expected subjunctive tense perhaps indicates the narrator's powerful wish that the lost children should not suffer, should return home safely. By the end of the novel, when this invocation of the imagination as nurturing and containing space is repeated, it has acquired disturbing resonance. The reader is forced to wonder just where a safe place might be, just what a good home might be, has to scrutinise the various meanings of lost and child that the story lays out, has to discover how these shift according to history and desire.

The lost child at the heart of the novel is 16-year-old Zoe, who runs away from her London home with its complement of parents, Alma and Paul, and brother Adam. In a re-creation of the myth of Demeter searching distraught for her lost daughter Persephone, Alma becomes distracted by grief and anger, drives her husband from the house and hardens her heart against her student son. Her modern odyssey through the underworld is conducted among London's mean streets at first, then later on in the labyrinth of childhood memories. Zoe, a sad and bedraggled Persephone, only reappears right at the end of the novel. By then we know that the darkness of Hades, in which she was able to hide, was Alma's ignorance of Zoe's nature and wishes. Once Alma can see her daughter, they can be reunited.

Alma, in fact, has to learn to move outside her egotism and make contact with others. While she sees herself as a victimised domestic saint, attentive to others to the point of self-mutilation, the novel repeatedly shows how her desperation to be nice in a conventionally feminine way in fact makes her insensitive to others' true needs, as well as her own.

Maggie Gee boldly and wisely gives us a heroine who is irritating and not very likeable. Alma wants Zoe to be the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the perfect all-rounder. She smugly assumes that other children envy Zoe, that the working-class children who come unaccompanied to the swimming-pool must long to be included in 'the mysteriously fascinating scene of a parent looking after children'. Alma doesn't know how to name other people. She sees window-shoppers as 'refugees' and calls homeless people 'dossers, derelicts, down-and-outs'. She calls herself a 'good feminist', but hasn't begun trying to have equal relationships with other women.

Courageously, slowly, painstakingly, Gee picks away at Alma's middle-class solipsism: even her compassion for the lost, abandoned, starving children of the world is expressed as a projection of her own pain. Gee's novels usually connect the personal to the political; here, in a telling inversion, she forces us to wonder how much we can really identify with anyone else, whether caring cancels out detachment or co-exists with it, whether thinking we are normal (one of Alma's favourite words) means deprecating others who are different. Gee's great achievement in this novel is to demonstrate how oppressed women are not inevitably sweet, how twisted and distorted we can be if we try to live out patriarchal fantasies of 'real women'. Alma is convincing as a character precisely because she's so exasperating, a wonderful example of how becoming alert to feminist issues does not automatically make you the most popular person at dinner.

Under the cool intelligence and social engagement of Maggie Gee's novels there beats, I have always thought, a drive to romantic and dramatic storytelling. So too here. The novel starts off as vignettes of Alma's past with Zoe, then gets into its stride, into longer chapters, cliff-hanging episodes, thrilling rescues, elegiac and emotional summings-up, goodies pitched against baddies. Gee is not afraid of playing on our heartstrings, of producing soaring flights of joy and despair, of allowing throbbing climaxes that verge on the melodramatic. She seems to me to have inherited many of the qualities of her great Victorian forebears, such as Mrs Gaskell. Relishing traditional third-person / omniscient narrative, with its surface securities, she lets herself dive under that surface and bring up frightening home truths.

(Photograph omitted)