Books: Chicken and condoms for dinner

LEAVE BEFORE YOU GO by Emily Perkins, Picador pounds 12.99
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IT'S ONLY fairly recently that Emily Perkins won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize with her first book, a collection of short stories called Not Her Real Name, and produced a funny, smart set of characters and situations with sharp observations and witty dialogue. Now with her first novel, she has expectations to live up to, and has attempted something much more sustained, but perhaps less suited to the quirky style and approach of her previous work.

Leave Before You Go takes two kinds of personalities that readers of Perkins will be familiar with, and charts their attempts to try and find a place for themselves. Daniel is a hopeless, twentysomething Londoner who agrees to deliver drugs from Thailand to New Zealand for $10,000 (he does note that this is New Zealand dollars, but not that it seems a bit miserly for the risk involved), a deal which lands him penniless in Auckland. Kate is the woman he meets there, similarly adrift, who can't decide what to do with her life and who works as an usherette in an Auckland cinema while trying to make up her mind. The novel speeds along through their meeting, the friends that are grouped around them, how the various relationships break up, fall apart, get back together again. Perkins is best when dealing with the kind of dialogue that group interactions can generate, and has a natural ear for individual peculiarities of expression, like couples' digs at each other, or the sly references between friends. But dialogue is no substitute for narrative, and although the novel opens with a promise of narrative pace, it fails to deliver.

The problem is evident early on in the novel. Daniel's method of smuggling his condom-filled drugs out of Thailand is to swallow them. Although we know he makes it through customs - the novel is after all about him and Kate meeting in New Zealand - this is an experience which maybe deserves more attention than Perkins gives it. Sitting in the plane, Daniel is beginning to sweat: "The meal is some sort of reconstituted chicken. It's harder to force down than the condoms were but he makes himself eat enough so they won't get suspicious. He doesn't dare move out of his seat in case one of those things inside him bursts under cabin pressure." This is a genuinely horrible, and potentially funny moment, but Perkins passes over it too easily - Daniel hesitates fleetingly at customs, but before we know it, he has passed through and the narrative continues at the same rate.

This lack of variety of pace is partly a consequence of Perkins' natural, free-flowing style, which works so well with the short story form, perhaps because of the length limitation. But it is a style which shouldn't fool anyone. It is not an easy effect to create, and as Leave Before You Go indicates, is even less easy to sustain.

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