BOOK REVIEW / One slice or two?: A working mother - Agnes Owens: Bloomsbury pounds 9.99

WASTING NO time, this novel pitches headlong into marital dialogue of the most dreary kind: ' 'I'll have to get a job,' I said. My husband replied: 'To get away from me, I suppose.' 'We owe money. The kids need clothes, apart from the fact that we like to eat.' 'Do what you like. I'm tired of carrying you all.' 'You are tired of carrying yourself.' ' The no-frills style is meant to be funny, and quite a lot of it is.

Betty, the narrator, and her husband Adam can only stand each other with a bottle between them; they can barely muster the strength and venom required for a good argument. Instead, they squabble, their intense hatred lightly spooned by the author as dressing on casual conversation: ' 'Yes, darling,' I said in tones of loathing. 'Do you want one slice of toast, or two?' '

Betty fell in love with Adam, the war hero; but wars become wearisome subjects, like just about everything else in this book. The flippant tone discourages deep analysis, and excuses the author from the responsibility of providing plausible motives: for Betty's quickie affair with Adam's best friend, for example. 'You don't perform very well, do you?' Betty suddenly remarks to Brendan as he zips up following one unmoving encounter. Yet, elsewhere, in a few brief brush-strokes, the reader is given to understand that Betty fancies him like mad. Conceivable, but not terrifically convincing.

A little assembly of small-time eccentrics provide a standard quirkiness; Mrs Rossi, the employment agent, tells fortunes on the side, while Betty's employer Mr Robson takes an interest in her, beyond the call of duty. (There is something decidedly unweird in the fact that he is working on a book called The Study of Human Behaviour in Animals.) When he takes Betty home for extra typing duties, his advances don't aspire beyond masturbation behind a curtain, as Betty sits obediently on the bed. Her subsequent thought is equally indifferent: 'as I wasn't involved in this I considered I had been let off lightly.' This scene provides a suitable analogy for the reader's general involvement with Betty's new job, and with the men in her life. 'I've never taken up with anybody who is anywhere near rational,' she announces.

Betty and Adam, practised at inducing a false, tipsy happiness, seem incapable of sustaining a calm co-existence. Owens's hard- edged tone never falters, even during a rare moment of peace, when Adam and Betty are lying in bed: ' 'I suppose I'm difficult to live with. It's not been easy for you,' he said. 'It's not been easy for you either.' Our voices sounded wooden, like the first stages of a prayer meeting.'

Although snatches of mundanity make for dark humour, Owens's abbreviated, limited style is no less unreal than an overblown lyricism. The dialogue hardly pauses to allow for any description, making the book as spare as a play. The studiously reduced stock of throwaway lines are sharp, often funny and sad, but lacking an intensity of spirit.

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