Books: The Ex-files of pop

The Exes by Pagan Kennedy, Simon & Schuster pounds 10

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1996 for her first novel Spinsters, Pagan Kennedy has moved on in The Exes to view all the world as a stage and life as a rousing rock gig. Her protagonists Hank and Lilly tear themselves to pieces as a couple, but find a deeper connection once they stick to playing their guitars. In her youth Lilly had created her own punk scene in Knoxville, Tennessee, and learnt the look by studying the back of Patti Smith album covers.

All the "white-trash poetry" in Lilly's nature and her desperate need for attention are turned to good account and great PR when she and Hank form the Exes, a band consisting strictly of ex-couples - which keeps audiences and music press guessing about their sleeping arrangements on tour. Band members come to accept that it is easier to stay in synch in music than in love.

Hank is a pale, watery-eyed ex-Boy Scout with so little angst in his Midwestern past that he can scarcely think of anything to scream about on stage except maybe the death of his poodle Mittens. Yet this is a man with an unerring radar for spotting talent, who can pull together misfits and set them on the road to musical glory.

For money he works in a shop called Vile Vinyl - reminiscent of Nick Hornby's Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity, though here there is less hit listing and nostalgia by numbers, and more of a shake-down of the urge to groove at all.

Hank spots Shazia Dchra, a bisexual Pakistani Muslim (plenty of angst there) who is a spectacular bass guitarist. She has already been lured away from a gay-girl band scene by an "intense" male musician who loved and left her. She brings to the Exes yet another ex-lover, a troubled genius biologist who has recently dropped out of Harvard and into a loony bin, though now he is trying to be "normal" as a mail carrier by day and a drummer by night; most significantly, Walt has a van.

Weird and wired as these individuals may be, when they step on stage, redemption is at hand. Kennedy is fascinated by why this should be, how lonely musical obsession finds expression, how loose wires connect and a band becomes more than the sum of its members.

Kennedy is best at a laid-back bantering irony, and she never hectors with her wisecracks, though sometimes she is overweening with her imagery, or that of her characters. When scientific Walt starts pondering that "each atom is a kind of molecular rock band; the elegant and stable helium would be the Beatles ..." etc, it definitely looks like time for Walt to get back to the drum kit.

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