Books: Lucky Lolita in the youth facility

Roger Fishbite by Emily Prager Chatto pounds 10
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Emily Prager's novel both laments and celebrates little girls. While it deals with an unpleasant subject - the exploitation and victimising of children - it is as much fun to read as one would expect from any work by this author. The writing is sharp, witty and energetic. Lucky Linderhof, the 12-year-old New York nymphette-narrator, is bright and clued-up. She takes us into her confidence, addressing us as "dear Readers and Watchers" - an ironic reference to the glut of Oprah-type TV shows from which she has acquired much of her worldly wisdom.

Her mother is a delight. Foolish, diminutive and gullible, Mrs Linderhof changes her interiors and her fashion image as frequently as she is abandoned by her lovers. Just as she replaces her Thirties velvet boudoir chair for a Seventies egg-shaped receptacle and then abandons both for a Chinese opium couch, so she replaces the Texan medic with the Bosnian con-man and, after brief detours with the adolescent Lord Kroll and the ineffectual Mr Turkman, ends up with Roger Fishbite, the demon lodger who, having despatched her upon the third attempt, then sexually abuses her daughter. As Lucky observes, "she'd trust a snake if it used hair mousse."

The book is Prager's not altogether reverent reply to Nabokov's Lolita, and its achievement lies in portraying the charm and resilience of Nineties female children from affluent but destabilised families, who are required to tread a more complex minefield of emotional and physical danger than that which confronted the Fifties nymphette. Structurally, Prager has made an ingenious parody. In both novels the narrator gives his or her account from prison; both abused girls are minded by domestics from ethnically disadvantaged groups; both attend schools with silly names; both are sexually wised-up at summer camp; both books have notable comic set-pieces - in Prager's case, an exchange between make-up artists at a child beauty queen convention; both evolve into road books, as the illegal lovers move from motel to motel.

The problem is that Prager's novel inevitably drives one back to the original. And the original is so infinitely more marvellous, more layered, more empathetic, more profoundly sad, more exquisitely and subversively funny, that one is left ungrateful and dissatisfied. We gain less insight into Fishbite's victim than into Humbert Humbert's, for all that the former is allowed to tell her own story. When Nabokov's narrator tells us, for example, that "Lo" has read all her holiday comics the day before she leaves for summer camp, or that her attention is more engaged with public lavatory signs that say "Guys 'n' Gals" than with the Claude Lorrain clouds en route, then we know that this is the real abused child, whose predicament is the more appalling.

When we are jolted by that image of Humbert Humbert's tongue on Lolita's eyeball, we scream inwardly; we hold our breath with the shock, the pain, the tenderness of it. The extraordinary language and imagery draws us into an identification with the criminal abuser, no less than we are drawn by Othello or Macbeth, until the experience of his destructive pathology becomes our own. Lucky talks of cunnilingus, where Lolita considers kisses anywhere but on the mouth to be perverted. And Lucky can run rings round her rather lumpish abuser, who can't tell raclette from fondue. His only charm for her is that, in certain lights, his hefty shoulder recalls that of her absent father. Roger Fishbite is simply a banal piece of nastiness who reminds us that the abuse of children by stepfathers is a bad but prevalent thing. And this, dear Readers and Watchers, is what we already know from Oprah.

Naturally, Prager has no intention of making us purge our souls on the predicament of her gun-toting nymphette. Her story is about the empowerment of children. Lucky, even from behind the bars of the youth "facility", has found a highly suitable and most amusing way of becoming mistress of her own fate. This is a clever and entertaining little book, not so much Nabokov as Henry Fielding - "an author," Lucky confides, "whom I revere".