Books: The boy with several thorns in his side

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The Independent Culture
Mother Tongue

by John Helmer

Quartet pounds 10

If you imagine the author of this strange book as a kind of anaesthetist who administers his prose like a potion to dull judgment, while carefully ripping out your insides, you'll get a fair idea of how Helmer goes about writing his first novel.

He's asking us to take some pretty strong stuff. Anorexia, infant death, rape, suicide and child abuse are just a few of the issues he touches upon.

The narrator of the novel is Hal, a 15-year-old boy who suffers a relentless awakening to the sordid secrets that construct his family's past. As each is discovered, his middle-class comfort gradually disintegrates until he's left with literally nothing.

The most destructive secret of all is one that only Hal knows, but has refused to acknowledge to himself. Along with everybody else in the neighbourhood, he fancies his mum. And in spite of her rampant promiscuity and episodes of illegal intimacy with him in his youth, she will not consummate his desires.

But this is the only moral boundary that survives Helmer's blitzkrieg of a family unit. Every other conviction that suburban England supposedly holds dear crumples as soon as it's brushed by truth. In fact the only things that do remain secure are Hal's quest for the horrible answers that explain his pain, and the redemption offered by the author's irreverently confident style.

Helmer's prose is stripped of the drag of convention or explanation, with tragedy following accident following farce in a non-stop liturgy to everyday life. His respect for his characters and his ability to find genuine comedy in their tragedy, reminds you of Louis de Bernieres's easy- going nonchalance and charm. And by never judging the degeneracy that his characters display, Helmer can stroll through the moral vacuum as if he's tip-toeing through the tulips.

The curious thing is that the void is a nice place to be: the novel's Kafka epigram states that it is "possible that not only could we live continuously in Paradise, but that we are continually there in actual fact, no matter whether we know it here or not".

Certainly the relish and optimism that underlie the narrative appear to exist not in opposition to but as if engendered by human frailty, weakness and error. The novel's extensive cast of victims somehow manage to achieve an heroic status their actions ill deserve. And this is Helmer's triumph.

While the novel is congested with despair and disappointment, it also throbs with the colour and comedy of real life. Its purgative pace, relentless and baffling optimism, alongside Hal's mission to find the cure, combine to provide the teaspoon of sugar that helps what is ultimately a disturbingly distasteful medicine go down.