A bit of a do in North-eastenders

Rape, frostbite and a lesbian granny - the soap opera of family life is a rich source of comic inspiration for writers. Michael Arditti, Carole Morin and Carol Birch investigate three great British home stories.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Tyneside has undergone a massive reconstruction in recent years, but it is nothing compared to its literary reinvention at the hands of Paul Magrs. The landscape remains bleak (rubbish-strewn streets and acrid- smelling civic centres) and the climate of casual violence bleaker still (arson attacks on schools and children dancing round dead dogs), but Magrs bathes it in a festive glow - as though the street lamps have been replaced by fairy lights.

He sets Does it Show? (Chatto, pounds 9.99), his second novel, on a rundown council estate in his own hometown of Newton Aycliffe. It is an area so deprived that even the teachers come from one-parent families, but Magrs endows his characters with a resilience and a determination to transcend their circumstances which is most manifest in the vitality of their language. By the time that a police inspector asks if a family is "a problem family", the reader knows that the question is meaningless. So-called problem families have as complex and comical lives as everyone else.

Magrs first novel, Marked for Life - with its bisexual father and lesbian grandmother - saw the dysfunctional family come of age. His second also invokes respect for a group of people who would make every one of Anne Atkins' immaculate hairs curl: a gay teacher; a transvestite father who passes as a mother; a grandmother who prefers to have sex with disabled men and is looking for an amenable dwarf. And yet, although the new novel's canvas is broader, its focus is less sharp. The gay lovers are less well integrated into the book's scheme.

Magrs - whose writing is reminiscent of Patrick Gale, Angela Carter and, in particular, the Frank Clarke of Letter to Brezhnev - is developing a style that might best be described as magic soap opera. In Does It Show?, the magical elements, which centre on the visionary schoolgirl Penny, are less pronounced than in Marked for Life, but the soap-operatic ones more so. This is due to its council-estate setting and episodic structure (the book might well be subtitled North-East-Enders) but, above all, to its concern with the everyday problems of women.

In Playing Out, his newly published collection of short stories (Vintage, pounds 5.99), Magrs writes of one of his characters that "He knew the kind of things women said together, he could imagine those. Men frightened him because his imagination ground to a halt with them." It is tempting to apply the remark to the author. The gay lovers excepted, men are either inadequates - bullies, drunkards, absentees, amputees - or else fantasy figures, such as Cliff, the hunky bus driver (more Heath-than Richard), while the women are, in every sense, powerful presences.

Magrs is clearly so confident of his fictional territory, with its mildly subversive but reassuring customs, that he is already becoming self-referential. Mark Kelly makes a brief reappearance from the first novel, "his tattoos sinister in the gloom", while several of the new novel's female characters reunite in "Judith's Do Round Hers", one of the funniest short stories.

The stories are somewhat uneven and samey (all the non-working class characters are either writers or academics), but the finest ("Anemones", "My Labrador, his puppy", and "Bargains for Charlotte") show Magrs' talent at its best, their vivid dialogue, wonderfully weird characterisation and moments of transcendence making up for the lack of any larger statement. All Magrs now needs is a subject to match his style and setting, for his immense promise to be fulfilled. MA

The worthy reviews quoted on the cover make Livi Michael's books sound plain as a puddle and half as interesting. She writes about working-class women trapped on northern council estates, teenage mums so poor they can't afford even the pram in the hallway. Occasionally, a middle-class mother makes an appearance and - guess what - these mums are just as miserable.

Her fiction doesn't sound like a bundle of laughs, but in fact it is often hysterically funny. At the beginning of her career, Michael - although from Manchester - was grouped with the dour Kelman clones who dominated Scottish fiction before Irvine Welsh. Michael does have common ground with the Scots, and she isn't everyone's cup of gruel, but the subtle use of black comedy sets her work apart. Amidst rape, cancer, child abuse, homelessness and frost-bitten fingers, this comedy is often overlooked.

Her third novel, All the Dark Air (Secker, pounds 9.99), exposes the true romance of obese Julie and emotionally autistic Mick. Julie's story is told in the third person but exclusively from her viewpoint. At first this feels like a mistake. Michael's earlier novels were polyphonic, and though the voices were similar, switching between characters helped relieve the tension.

Our heroine's mother has made her homeless by dying after a miserable life spent working in a factory and married to pervy Brian. Julie has been obsessed with big Mick since school. He doesn't know she's alive until she joins the Mind Power group and starts to meditate about him. Mick has a Princess Diana complex: he wants to save victims even worse off than himself. He invites Julie to live with him and his drug addict friend Darren in his strange Uncle Si's rundown house. Mick has a homosexual crush on Darren, but accidentally impregnates Julie - then the laughs start.

The world as seen through Julie's eyes is so claustrophobic it provokes a heightened atmosphere close to hysteria. You're always on the verge of giggling, the way some children laugh when their granny dies. It becomes possible to identify with Julie's delusions about Mick, and to start pretending that maybe there's something in Mind Power. Julie has "noticed at school that sometimes, if you lied well enough, people begin to support your lie and it became a kind of truth".

Livi Michael is perversely good at creating sexual tension. Julie's jealousy of weak, nihilistic Darren culminates in a cruel attack. This is nothing compared to the discomfort provoked when her friend Alison admits, over a cup of tea in McDonald's, to being envious that her impotent boyfriend has molested her baby daughter. This scene wouldn't work if the characters were middle-class feminists who could afford a cup of tea each. The reader could dismiss them as artificial and pretentious. In Michael's flat prose, Julie and Alison are mundane Mancunians - and that makes their experience both convincing and creepy.

Although enjoyable and accomplished, this third novel lacks the spiritual poetry of Michaels' Under a Thin Moon: a poetry that lurks invisible at the edge of the page, desperate to make contact. CM

Stephen Blanchard's first novel, Gagarin and I, was a singular mix of black comedy and haunting whimsy, subtly and beautifully written. Its qualities are in evidence in Wilson's Island (Chatto pounds 9.99), but what this book crucially lacks is focus.

Returning to his hometown after four years away, Ralph allows himself to become drawn into the shady underworld of his father, a wheeler-dealer in second-hand electrical goods and other less specified commodities. Meanwhile, Ralph's ailing grandmother dotes upon him from her rooms above an amusement arcade, sustained by an abused long-term companion, Eric, and a highly insalubrious cat named Mrs Foster after an enigmatic, one- eyed, dead friend. Also on hand is a bitter ex-wife and the eight-year- old son who has been the butt of Ralph's drunken violence, plus a diverse cast of wide boys, grizzled drunks, crooked-faced women and sundry neighbours whose presence seems laden with import.

Stephen Blanchard is a wonderfully atmospheric writer. The city is a wasteland of skips and diggers, the interiors a squalid chaos of bad smells, bare boards and cardboard boxes. Cliff, Ralph's father, lives in a caravan in a derelict station, where foxes cry like babies at night along the abandoned railway line, "a stir of animal grief in the early hours". Reality consists of a series of odd, inconsequential details recorded with vivid detachment: the landing of a pigeon, the slamming of a car door assume a stoned significance.

Blanchard layers the mundane with the bizarre in a string of short ragged scenes that flit between the many characters and, increasingly, between past and present. A sense of unease is sown, hints of menace gather, somewhere below the surface an untold story simmers , the whole dark concoction brewing up to...Well, not very much, actually. The story is not strong enough to warrant such a weight of obscure significance, such a to-ing and fro-ing between times and characters. At the heart of Wilson's Island is a secret, something hidden and hinted at throughout. With its huge cast and dangling conversations, it has the feel of a seedy, low-gear mystery novel, and the reader inevitably spends a large part of the book waiting for the click of pieces falling into place.

The revelations, however, fall flat when they do come. This is partly because Blanchard seems so locked into the habits of obscurity that he can't bear to part with them and hence does so in a somewhat grudging manner, but mainly because it's hard to care about characters as minimal as this, particularly Ralph. They go through the motions, obedient to pulled strings, making the best of an often wooden script. But they don't live.

Stephen Blanchard is a very fine writer apparently sidetracked by his own cleverness. All the qualities that made his first novel so impressive are here, but the lens has lost its sharpness. I look forward to him finding his focus again. CB