BOOK REVIEW / A happy family, toenails and all: Come and tell me some lies - Rafaella Barker: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99

THERE IS nothing about this book to suggest that it really is a novel, and not simply autobiography. It portrays the kind of toenails-and-all family you hate, love, and learn to live with, not the kind you invent. The detail is so true to itself, the memories so specifically personal, that if this is fiction then the medium has been rendered altogether transparent.

It tells the story of the rambling, bohemian family of a poet, living in a damp and freezing house in Norfolk, with books, children and animals tumbling out of every corner. Viewed with suspicion by the locals ever since the day when their Doberman roamed the village dressed in red lacy camiknickers, the many offspring live blissfully unconcerned by public opinion until they begin to go to school and meet 'children who lived in warm houses with carpets'. The regime and order of school suddenly begins to show up the chaos of home.

The small good moments and the awful, baggy bad times succeed each other in Rafaella Barker's brief, episodic format, tracking the high and low points which stand out in the collective family memory: a trip to the coast, a fall from a horse, midnight marital rows. Two separate narrative standpoints are employed, a first-person account by the eldest daughter, and a third-person voice which picks up from the time the parents first meet, thus accessing the history which lies beyond the direct reach of the narrator herself. The two time-scales converge at the point of the father's death.

The author's evocation of childhood displays a sure handling of detail: the obsessions, the first and second-best bunnies, the favourite, ghastly garments. She is particularly good on those writhing moments of shame which of all memories stand out so ineradicably, such as arriving at a party, aged 15, in what is clearly the Wrong Dress. Such events leave the narrator in misery, 'washed up on a dirty shore of embarrassment'.

The sum of these parts is a witty, likeable family portrait which could have been affected, but isn't, save for a somewhat fey opening passage about angels and contessas. The book's strength lies in its honesty, an attribute forcibly acquired from life in large families where one's faults are continually aired in public. It is also faithful to it's own borders: it doesn't try to go beyond itself, a good quality for a first novel - or indeed for a first autobiography.

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