Books: Looking back in self-pity

Divine by Joanna Traynor, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99
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Vivian Jackson is a tough but vulnerable young black woman who has a hideously disfiguring scar, and who is looking at a possible jail sentence for drug dealing, at the start of Joanna Traynor's novel Divine. We know we aren't going to be in for an easy ride with a beginning like this, and Traynor now has a reputation to live up to. Winner of the 1996 Saga prize, which is awarded to unpublished black British writers, with her debut novel Sister Josephine, Traynor came on the scene with the hard- hitting tale of trainee nurse, Josephine, desperately seeking her identity in a hostile environment. This time with Divine, she is just as sharp and to the point. But it is far from clear that Traynor has successfully challenged the raised expectation and unfavourable comparison that greets second novels.

The main problem lies more with the narrative than with the characterisation of the novel's heroine, Vivian, although this has its own difficulties. The "Divine" of the title is Vivian's sister, who caused her sibling's disfigurement by accidentally tipping a pan of boiling jam over her when they were little. This event is gradually revealed to us, as the plot is formed mainly through the flashbacks of Vivian's memory, telling us how she has arrived at this point of arrest. One of a cast of characters whom we meet but briefly and who seem little more than ciphers in Vivian's self-absorbed and usually drug-induced world, Divine is the seemingly successful and beautiful counterfoil to Vivian's ugly and shambolic life. She exists as a psychological torment, a demon Vivian has to confront in order to come to terms with her disfigurement and disfunction.

Vivian's voice is angry, sometimes confused, but more often than not, drowned in tears of self-pity for her appearance, her disadvantages ("My chances in the job market are nil and in the marriage market probably even less") and the worry about her possible future in prison. The problem here is that Traynor over-emphasises Vivian's self-pity and distances readerly sympathy for her.

Where she does come to life, particularly in diatribes against the legal establishment she is up against or on issues of sex or race, the sharpness and accuracy are a breath of fresh air: "They must look in the mirror and see Olde England in all its Glory, in its wig and gown. The very same wig and gown that dressed the man who consigned my father's ancestors to a lifetime of slavery. The very same costume and they're still not too embarrassed to wear it. If I could see some practical use for it, I wouldn't be so base about it. But I can't."

The novel has been marketed as a thriller, a misnomer because it lacks the kind of pace that the genre requires. When two of the novel's characters die from an overdose of pure heroin it comes less as a shock and more a relief that one particularly annoying strung-out male voice won't be heard again. But Traynor's ear for dialogue and her realistic touches are as accurate as ever, and rescue some less convincing elements of this work.