BOOK REVIEW / Discovering daddy in the deep freeze

Pagan and her Parents by Michael Arditti Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 12.99; Miranda Seymour finds vivid characters and special pleading in a novel of gay parenthood

Readers of Michael Arditti's moving and powerful first novel, The Celibate, will not be misled by the title of his second into supposing that he has written about a conventional family. What he has done, as he did in that book, is to make a passionate case for the homosexual's right to love and to be loved.

The narrator, Leo Young, describes the complicated past relationship he has had with two people, Candida Mulliner and Robin Standish. Robin is handsome, Catholic and confused about his sexuality: Candida, with her admiring undergraduate friend Leo in tow, gravitates towards him out of a longing for the kind of aristocratic, ultra-English background to which she feels she has a right to belong. Leo, the shy son of a woman who runs a boarding-house and who believes in sticking to your own class, is able to view the Standishes with a critical eye and see the ugliness of their small stately home. Candida is intoxicated, even when Lady Standish, drawling through lipstick-stained teeth, talks of a drunken husband who raped her, beat her and was finally "dragged from the mud of a drained lake, foetid in body as in spirit.''

Influenced by Robin, Candida becomes a rebel; when he becomes engaged to a nice county girl, she turns up at the party to warn the fiancee that she may be in for a nasty attack of herpes. Leo, as always, looks on and is presciently warned by Lady Standish against the danger of loving anybody too much, unless he wants a broken heart.

Pagan's unhappy story begins after the slow and unflinchingly described death of Candida. The child's father has never been named, although Candida's promiscuity suggests many possibilities. On her deathbed, Candida entrusts her small daughter to Leo, the man who has helped to bring her up and whom she identifies as a father-figure. The choice seems ideal: Pagan is a devoted six-year-old; Leo is a lonely but successful television chat- show host with a house in Kensington, a cook and infinite patience for Pagan's caprices.

The problems, and a sour form of comedy, begin when Candida's adoptive parents, never having seen their grand-daughter, decide that she cannot be entrusted to the care of a homosexual. They take Leo to court; the newspapers dig out every unlikely and plausible detail they can find to tarnish his reputation; his career is ruined and Pagan is carried off by the ghastly grandparents to be transformed into Patience and taught the art of self-sacrifice. (One nice and telling detail is the grandmother's refusal to let her eat one of the jam tarts she is permitted to help bake for members of the St John's Ambulance Brigade.) Fortunately, the story does not end there.

Arditti is unusually deft in his manipulation of the way a narrative unfolds. In The Celibate, he played with different voices to heighten the suspense; here, his decision to have Leo address himself to the dead Candida allows the reader to question Leo's fascination with a character we are never allowed to meet. A whimsical blend of Zuleika Dobson, Sally Bowles and Becky Sharp, fearless and dreadful in her ability to enjoy herself at the expense of other people, Candida is a more memorable creation than poor, decent Leo.

He is almost too good to be true - he has to be for Arditti's purposes, while Candida is mad and bad enough to send Cruella De Vil running for cover. I was unsure whether I was meant to smile as unkindly as I did when, having dreamed that she is the secret daughter of an Earl and a beautiful housemaid, she learns that her mother was a telephonist and her father a meat packer. "You mean in an abattoir?'' Leo asks, trying to make things seem a little more exciting. "No,'' she answers, in his recollection, "there's not even any blood in it. He worked in a deep freeze.''

Suspense, as with The Celibate, is maintained until the end, when we are deluged with as many startling disclosures as in the last pages of a good Wilkie Collins. Few, it must be said, seem wholly plausible. I don't wish to give them away, but it troubled me that Mr Arditti's determination to make Leo a stain-free hero and ideal father-figure has resulted in some over-zealous blackening of other characters. He makes sure that the case for homosexual parenthood is not only validated but triumphant. I am not convinced that he has chosen the best fictional way to win the argument.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test