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
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker