Books: Strident witness

Penelope Lively admires the creation of a heroine who may well be mad, bad - and dangerous to know; Island by Jane Rogers Little, Brown, pounds 15.99, 261pp
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The Independent Culture
JANE ROGERS is a wonderfully versatile novelist. Here is her sixth novel, and it bears little resemblance to any of its predecessors. There is indeed a house-style: one of economy, accuracy and controlled passion. But the authorial voice has a chameleon quality; she speaks with tongues. And the tongue here is persuasive indeed. First-person narrative is the most treacherous of all forms. The use made of it here is exemplary - a text-book instance of the unreliable narrator. Or is that indeed the case? There's the rub. The reader is left uncertain, unsettled.

Nikki Black was abandoned by her mother as a baby - wrapped in a blanket and dumped outside a post office. That's what she has grown up believing. She has been passed between foster and children's homes, learning cynicism, self-reliance and contained rage. She has achieved A levels and a place at university, where she notches up further resentment: "All those middle- class kids playing... All cavorting in their self-invented fucking dramas and all precisely on course with Mummy and Daddy and money behind them".

Nikki is not on course. She has no support system, no background, no past. And she is shrewd about her own situation: "You go through the holes in the net." With awful regularity she finds herself on the skids once more. At 29, she is destitute. She suffers from what she calls "clinical fear" - bouts of uncontrollable terror. These are interwoven with her bleak and intelligent contemplation of her problem. Deprivation has turned to cold anger. She decides to find her mother and then kill her.

Nikki's voice is superbly done - caustic, bitter, packed with swingeing judgements. Listening, the reader is torn between pity and dislike. When she reaches the Hebridean island to which she has tracked down her mother, this ambivalence intensifies. Here she finds a slightly dotty woman, evidently ill, living in isolation.

And here also is Nikki's unexpected brother Calum, "a fool. Too tall, too thin... something that's been grown in the dark, forced, like rhubarb under a flower-pot." But her initial contempt and resentment for the youth change to an irritated affection. Neither mother nor son know who Nikki is as she settles into the room that her mother lets to visitors. She bides her time, lays her plans and the tension mounts.

Jane Rogers is strong on atmosphere, using the tormented climate of Nikki's mind as the medium. Her descriptions are memorable: she is a dab hand at fog, at domestic interiors, at waves, at the harvests of Calum's beachcombing. Sometimes, style can grate - Nikki's unpunctuated streams of thought; Calum's stammer.

And I was in two minds about the sequence of fables which form a crucial infrastructure. "I like to lose sight of the truth," says Nikki, telling the story of Fir Apple --a story of a brother and sister which will of course have resonances later on. Calum too tells apposite stories: Hebridean stories of seal girls and Little People and stolen babies. The narratives themselves are powerful and emotive, but smack too much of a literary device.

Is Nikki half-crazed, evil or entirely misguided? The gathering intensity of the book's second half and its dramatic climax raise all these questions and leave them unanswered, very properly. Nikki is a triumphant creation. Most novels featuring the abandoned child, the waif, the outcast, would present her as unqualified victim. Nikki is technically a victim, but she is made much more interesting than that. She is not a fictional vehicle for social comment, but the vibrant and provocative centrepiece for a fine novel.