Books: Brothers Grimm by the Humber

The Paraffin Child by Stephen Blanchard Chatto pounds 10
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If, for some dark reason that could never be disclosed, I wanted to disappear completely from the world, I'd go and live on a caravan park in Withernsea. Or Mablethorpe, maybe. It would be a bloodless alternative to suicide. Unbothered by motorways, the obscure emptiness of the north east coast is the last place in England that anyone would come looking for you. This is the reason Philip Larkin made his home in Hull. "Unfenced existence", he called it, "untalkative, out of reach."

Stephen Blanchard's third novel, The Paraffin Child, occupies this liminal territory. It's set in a world of dingy snooker-halls and seedy cabaret clubs; on the fringes of a run-down resort which the bucket-and-spade crowd have abandoned to a population of DSS claimants economically cleansed from richer towns. It's the perfect spot for Blanchard to exercise his uncanny descriptive abilities. His trick is to observe banal events - the movement of gulls, say, or the sight of a burning tyre - and rearrange them into a pattern of tiny surprises. He writes: "A tight flock of little birds flew low over the water and doubled back, like a sock being turned." The heat from a fire has "snapping valves". Fish are "twists of sweet wrapping". These images have a satisfying rightness. It's as if - after having assembled each idiosyncratic construction - he has sucked or sniffed or prodded it to test out its sensual veracity.

Blanchard's admired first novel, Gagarin and I, rocketed between the life of a 14-year-old boy in Hull, circa 1960, and the strangely meagre existence of his world-famous hero, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. There's a similar double-focus at work in The Paraffin Child: the novel shifts between the first-person narrative of John Drean, a pill-popping, self- destructive taxi-driver, and the letters of his former partner, Anna - which may or may not have ever been posted to him. These documents slowly articulate the trauma by which both their lives have been arrested - the disappearance of their child, Pearl, gone missing in the woods like a Little Red Riding Hood for whom the woodcutter didn't arrive on time. A lost-child story of keen, unforced pathos, it owes a debt to Don't Look Now, to the Brothers Grimm, and to the Middle English religious allegory, Pearl - in which the loss of a precious jewel in a garden brings its owner a vision of redemption.

Though structurally satisfying, the two-handedness of the novel reveals stylistic faults: Blanchard cannot resist endowing both narrating voices with his own quick facility for simile and description. This creates problems of plausibility, particularly in the passages that are nominally authored by Anna. Would a woman who can describe the nervy behaviour of a goat with the words, "the nanny skittered on her precise hoofs" really make the mistake of adding a "p" to the word "hamster"?

If an inconsistency like this irritates, it's only because Blanchard is a writer who demands - and deserves - careful reading. One of the most invigorating aspects of his writing is that he treats you like a grown- up. He doesn't feel obliged to blab on his characters, spoon out their potted histories, stage conversations that enumerate their pasts or presents. The result is that after a hundred or so pages of puzzling over quite who these people are and what they're up to, there comes a point when you suddenly have enough information to bring them sharply into focus. It's like learning to appreciate the bleak, flat comforts of the East Yorkshire coast; learning to finally coax the untalkative into conversation; or to grasp what's out of reach.