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
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
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.

    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
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there