Books: A match made in Heal's

SUCKER by Lana Citron, Secker pounds 9.99, TOURIST by Matt Thorne, Scep tre pounds 10 NAMEDROPPER by Emma Forrest, Arrow pounds 5.99
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The Independent Culture
BRIGHT YOUNG things tend to congregate in London, and bright young novelists tend to write fictions about themselves, so, in her first novel, Sucker, Irish-born Lana Citron (pictured right) writes about two young Irish women determined to acquire some cosmopolitan glitz, and forge careers and relationships in the capital. Bea longs to manipulate a man into marriage. Nonny relentlessly notches up conquests to reinforce her own self-loathing. The subject-matter may be familiar, but Citron's reworking of language isn't. Sucker is remarkable for the emergence of a brave new prose stylist. To match Nonny's disillusionment with emotional authenticity, Citron's use of language is brutal, impassioned and sparse. Her ruthless dissection of banalities and cliches, and ear for poetic scansion are deployed to create long passages of cleverly sustained free- association which also serve to further the story of her anonymous girl in the crowd. Citron's cynicism infects every male/female relationship she describes; crude, uncompromising power games are summed up with "Fancy a shag?" "No."

Her boldness makes for an invigorating read, as she teases the reader with her experiments in pace and deftly sketched protagonists, but falters in the final stages, when loose ends must be tied. Characters who were once intriguing are moulded to fit the moral, which settles for domestic bliss for Bea (even if it is a match made in Heal's rather than Heaven), and Nonny delivering the ultimate coup de grace to an abusive man. She turns witness in a rape trial, destroying the defendant's case with her evidence, which has been slowly gathered in dream-like sequences throughout the novel to become its fitting motif: a couple's cat-and-mouse sex- game that goes horribly wrong.

Disaffection, dreary temporary jobs and joyless sex gain another champion in Matt Thorne. His first novel, Tourist, is set in Weston-Super-Mare, where "the streets smell of hot cars and dead fish", and dreams and ambitions flounder in squalid bed-sits. Sarah Patton is a 27-year-old refugee from a suffocating love-triangle, who has painstakingly constructed a life for herself in Weston, "designed so that it can be thrown away at any minute". She is having an affair with her married boss, Paul, a seedy, small-time entrepreneur. The rest of the time, she works in a bowling alley, or visits her other lover - Henry, a decrepit old man in a residential home. Sarah and Weston were made for each other, it seems. The parochial seaside town is perfect for the kind of hopeless existence she wants for herself. And Thorne's writing is beautifully understated, with an attention to seamy detail that creates an atmosphere of overwhelming sadness.

When Sarah starts to fall in love and make friends, her contrived composure cracks, and, when her trust is betrayed, her resistance to commitment is reinforced; Weston no longer offers the safe haven she longs for. Thorne's expert handling of the frayed edges of Sarah's psychology creates an underlying tension, but, perhaps because of this very self-effacement, his novel never gains momentum.

There is none of Citron and Thorne's weary cynicism in Emma Forrest's first novel. Forrest, a journalist since she was 16, is defiantly superficial, and Namedropper is a celebration of youthful posturing. Viva (closely modelled, one feels, on her creator) revels in London life, seeing it as an opportunity for constant self-dramatisation.

Forrest's writing has so much energy, she can barely contain it; her plot is barely there, her characters are rent-a-stereotypes, like gay Uncle Manny who brings Viva up to worship Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, and other tragic female heroines. As Viva says: "I can't imagine anything worse than Thelma leaping to safety before Louise drives off the cliff. It's uncinematic. Uncinema is my evil nemesis." Viva's story is a series of episodes from a teensomething drama (in which she fails her mock GCSEs), a Hollywood biopic (in which she cavorts with pop stars in LA), and a Smash Hits reader's fantasy which allows disguised cameo roles for the lead singers of Oasis, Pulp and the Manic Street Preachers.

The whole referential caboodle buzzes with brio and confidence, but when every other sentence has to be flip, hip and bang up-to-date, decoration begins to outweigh substance: "I can tell that this day was set out to make me weep and eat Kit-Kats. (Boy, you can't tell I live with a queen.)" Viva will be the heroine of self- obsessed teenagers-at-heart everywhere, irritating, endearing, wicked and witty, with the requisite crises of self-image, unrequited love, and a crush on her best friend. It will be interesting to see what happens to her when she grows up.

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