BOOKS: Vodka, peas and old mortality

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EVERY so often one stumbles across the work of an unknown writer which really deserves those worn out blurb-writer's epithets, "fresh" and "individual":

"Emily's husband Paolo, who's an Italian psychiatrist, wants a divorce because he is sick of Emily's old boyfriend, Ben, coming round all the time. Even on their wedding night Ben was with them till 3am drinking vodka and eating peas. Paolo is also tired of the flat being full of the objects that Emily uses for her acts. Last week she had two horse tails from an abattoir in the bathroom."

This paragraph is typical of this salt little book about cancer which I found more elastic, compassionate and funny than the work of any new female writer for some time. Its avoidance of those two depressingly contemporary tones, the kooky and the zany, is unselfconscious and absolute. The ice skated upon throughout, in terms of technique, subject matter and emotional unease, is thin, but also inscribed with a sure style and irradiated with what the author chooses to let us see through her lucid, curiously distancing, imagination.

Elisa Segrave was just over 40 when she found a lump in her breast. She was in mid-divorce and the mother of two much-loved children, the younger of whom, a boy, had emotional problems. She was also engaged in the struggle to become a published writer that provides one of the many plots of this slice of a diary which she has been keeping since she was a girl. Perhaps her cancer gives wider human interest to a life apparently rather rarefied by privilege, but it is hard, after reading this short book, not to be curious about the rest. The sadder the truths in this book, the more undeniable is their contiguous funniness that will not be ignored, and makes them sadder and more true to truth as it is, not, as it is routinely represented, in sanitised form with its mouth stitched in a mendacious, "inspirational", smile.

Elisa Segrave knows her luck: "The good things are: (a) I am not poor [thanks to a fortune in guano some way back]; (b) I have my children; (c) I have friends." But she lacks many of the riches some take for granted. Her two brothers are dead, one by drowning aged five on her seventh birthday ("The telegram had said, 'Raymond accidentally drowned', as though he would have drowned on purpose"), the other by suicide after a life of alcoholism. Her mother lost her father and brother when she was a child, and her husband, Segrave's father, to cirrhosis. Segrave worries that her mother is an alcoholic.

In this book things keep returning to death in the ways - perilous, enlivening, a little titillating, vastly shadowy - that they do in the preoccupations of young children. The story of Segrave's modern dance with old mortality - the Mass proving more palatable than macrobiotic beancurd stews - and of the friendships she made through her sickness and therapy is told with the almost healing touch of a humour that one friend remarked was "cumulative".

It's the right word, though perhaps it could have been minced even finer; Segrave's touch is pervasive. The children for whom she has to live are observed with so clear a love - the brisk, practical daughter, the tender, id-haunted son - and set down with such immediacy that they assume a vivid life rare in fiction, let alone autobiography. The egotism of thoughtless condolences from friends enclosing cuttings about fearful cancers and matching cures makes bitterly amusing reading.

If this book were fiction, I might hazard that it was about the vulnerability of boys and men, as against the shove and loadbearing and cracked robustness of women. Its hero is love, hardly ever declaring itself unrepressed except between the altruistic, vulnerable son and his mother. He expresses himself in a fashion at once eccentric and true: "I won't be an angel. I'll just have a boring life. I'll be nothing when I die. I won't see anything with the human eye. I won't even be a soul on the telephone."

The bountiful sympathy of hurt people and the inescapability of parting and illness jostle against sacred monsters in Holland Park and grand America, who themselves contrast with embattled, broke, charmless ex- and ongoing lovers who bring to the book a vertiginous, cathartic note of farce. Further contrasts of texture are provided by Segrave's appetite for feuds, her reverence for goodness (epitomised throughout by Nicholas Mosley, who appears unconverted into pseudonymity, unlike some other literary persons) and various racketty parties, including one for the Booker Prize, where the diarist hides her chemotherapy duct with a bright shawl.

Heart-touching, heart-concealing, non-American wit of a sort less snobbish and more forgiving than camp has a small but skilful band of practitioners. Mary Killen is its Emily Post; Somerville and Ross its great aunts. Perhaps Elisa Segrave might become its Ivy Compton-Burnett. Her quick pen seems to be impatient for a stab at fiction. Her work is remarkable for its combi-nation of worldliness and spontaneity. She has the grace not to deploy the armlock of charm that makes, for instance, the work of Armistead Maupin, with whom she might superficially be compared, faintly compromising to the reader. In all the illness and distress, mortal dilemmas and adult conundra it offers, this book betrays no strain of a literary nature.