Book review / Menaced by a stick of rock

THE PRIVATE PARTS OF WOMEN by Lesley Glaister Bloomsbury pounds 14.99

THE disquieting title is a tease: Lesley Glaister's sixth novel lays bare the shameful secrets, evaded responsibilities and buried pasts of two women. Inis has deserted her husband and two small children in a fit of post-abortion depression. Despising herself, she hacks off and bleaches her long brown hair ("I did not look pretty any more and that was a relief, because I am not really pretty. Not inside"), flees to a dingy Sheffield terrace and reinvents herself as a photographer. But the arrival of this cropped blonde androgyne next door induces a psychosexual crisis in Trixie, who at the age of 84 might be assumed to be past such upheavals, and we realise that Glaister's title is frankly, pungently literal as well as punning.

Inis and Trixie alternate the narration but there are two other voices, staccato Boy and sluttish Ada, who seem gradually to gain in strength and malignancy. We figure out much sooner than Inis does that Trixie is sharing a body with two competing personalities. Inis just notices that the self-reliant, hymn-singing old lady has disconcerting mood swings, and periodically dons a bad wig, drinks, torments the cat and harps on the fact that Inis is an anagram of "I sin".

Lurching melodrama is undercut by the cool clarity of the prose, and it is testimony to Glaister's powers that Trixie emerges as more than just a basket-case from central casting. Her childhood is text-book dreadful: a twin brother born dead, an unloving father who dresses her up in boy's clothes and shoves her into the wardrobe, a disturbed mother who favours "the Reflective Punishment", forcing her unwanted daughter to stare in the mirror for hours and meditate on her own wickedness.

In adulthood, as a member of the Salvation Army saving souls in the East End, Trixie is still prone to blank stretches when her body becomes the playground for Ada's erotic adventures. One day she wakes up with a mysterious, matted scab on her inner thigh, which drops off to reveal a tattoo. There is the terrible, unexplained mystery of a missing baby, a farcical "death" by water and rebirth, and the episode, as funny as it is frightening, of the stick of rock, a phallic present offered by Inis and turned into a weapon.

Sweets and stickiness smear the text, creating an exhausting, overbearing physicality even more oppressive than the pervading sense of mental airlessness. Trixie remembers her Sally Army days in language of tired religiosity, and, when holy Harold responds to the slut within, novelletish cliche. Boy and Ada are banal commentators, prodding the plot along with all the literalism of the unconscious. Boy's commentary is in menacing free verse: "Now I am very angry and / She will be sorry" mutters he. "Watch out / When I'm about." Ada's contribution is more conventional but equally obvious: "I should have held us together. Because that boy is a monster. That boy will kill."

In a climax of stifling horror, Inis blunders into Trixie's attic, a hell of musty clothes and spilled urine, "stenches, rotten lilies, ancient perfume, unwashed linen, the secret, festering reek of body juices dried to crusts". The dual narrative is propelled by twin engines of self-exculpation, though the older woman loses focus and sympathy as we near the sensational conclusion. Trixie and Inis may not be "pretty inside", but they are interchangably pathetic and eminently forgivable.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect