BOOK REVIEW / The right to choose floor tiles: 'The Sense of Things' - Alison Dye: Heinemann, 9.99 pounds

'IN A democracy there is no excuse for not knowing what you want,' observes Joan Marie Pardee, the protagonist of Alison Dye's charming first novel, as she selects floor tiles in a showroom. 'People died so you could choose from a range of suitable options.' It is, after all, one way of looking at America, and not in the least inaccurate, for all its oddity.

Joan Marie's America, or her tiny New Jersey corner of it, is like that, in part because she herself is what others might call crazy, and in part because the world is. At 29, following the death of her mother, she has moved in with her employer, Louie Fusco, and helps him run his Italian bakery in a dilapidated suburb on the Hudson River facing Manhattan. She keeps the accounts by writing down 'Today we took in more than we paid out' and throwing the figure away. She helps customers decide what jingles to have printed on their cakes; she gives away free ice-cream so the local kids won't destroy the shop; and she chooses the new tiles for the bakery floor. She has never had a boyfriend; she has never had friends; but she does have countless manias and rituals to keep her safe from the horrors of life. From within the cocoon of these defences, she is brilliant, earnest, and ultimately unshakeable.

Rather, from her point of view (which is how we come to see things) it is those around her who seem not to have found ways of coping: Louie's raging daughter Angela; her alcoholic carpet salesman husband Benny; his lover Candi, a waitress at the Paradise Lounge; the customers in the bakery and the kids in the neighbourhood. Joan Marie does not judge them for this failure; indeed, she is generous to the point of indulgence and generally finds a positive interpretation for everyone's mad actions. For example, she reflects that 'when Benny and Angela met, he was living in a back room at the carpet store with a gun under his pillow . . . This is what I mean when I say Benny is a thorough person. He cares about his merchandise, he guards it with his life, which is a way of saying to customers: 'I appreciate you.' '

No reader can fail to be moved by the strength and buoyancy of the eccentric Joan Marie as she moves, at last, to make friends with a man named Jesus and his grandmother. Little by little, she lets down her impermeable barriers to reveal the absolute blackness of her childhood, and the grave losses, the violence and the unwittingly brutal mother that have made her what she is: someone who, in order to survive, has 'found that once you decide not to notice something, the rest falls into place'.

Alison Dye deservedly won the Stand Magazine Short Story Competition with an earlier version of Joan Marie's story. The Sense of Things, in turn, deserves to be widely read. Its narrator's haunting voice retains hope and humour amid life's bleakest truths, and successfully proves that the challenges that face us all - ostensibly mad and ostensibly sane, successful and unsuccessful, mature and immature - are ultimately the same. 'Verisimilitude,' explains Joan Marie, 'this is my biggest problem.' 'Quite,' agrees Jesus's grandmother. 'In my experience there is nothing else worth worrying about.'

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?