Book review / A very peculiar childhood

The Arizona Game by Georgina Hammick Chatto, pounds 14.99
Click to follow
Georgina Hammick's daring and original first novel is an acutely observed study of a very peculiar childhood and the unhappy adult it produces. "There's a lot of sadness and madness in our family...l hope you don't catch it," little Hannah is told by her guardian, the severe and learned Aunt Hope, as the two leaf through a family photograph album. As they examine carefree snaps of Hannah's grandfather, the one who blew his brains out with a shotgun while his wife was shopping, or her great Uncle Angus who fell from a high window to a sharp death on the black railings below and the generations of drunks and depressives in between, what really strikes Hannah is the uniform ugliness of them all. She combs the album unsuccessfully for a beautiful face, someone whose regularity and neatness of feature might suggest that her life could be different from those of her relations.

From this austere beginning Hammick conducts the narrative with an impressive fluency and some humour. We are carried back and forth between Hannah's childhood in Green Copse Road, the family's next home in a place called Arizona in the West Country, Hannah's adulthood with its failed romances and some glimpses of her life in London with her son Finch.

Hammick's grasp of the triumphs and disasters of childhood is extremely strong. She writes with great subtlety, but also manages to harness a child's perspective to the world she describes, so that an important event such as the death of Hannah's uncle on a day when she herself is attacked by youths at the local swimming pool, is given the same sort of emphasis as a more ordinary mishap like a trip to the fairground which turns out to be just about as excruciating and violent as a childhood disappointment can be. Hammick's eye for detail is impressive; we can almost smell the chlorine and the veruccas at the swimming baths, feel the stickiness of the sour vomit at the fun fair.

Hannah's adult relationship with her own son is an exceptional piece of writing, an unflinching and robust account of a mother furnishing her child with the means for yet another generation of domestic tragedy. The pain of being an adolescent, the complicated power struggles that exist within the family and a parent's failure to attend to its child's unhappiness are subjects that many first novels investigate. But in The Arizona Game Hannah is never allowed to free herself from her childhood losses and come into her own, and neither can her son Finch.

In fact, Hannah's intense dislike of her child is the strongest relationship in this book. She lacks the insight and the inclination to connect her feelings, or the lack of them, to the oddness of her own start in life, but the reader cannot fail to do so. The degree of Hannah's hatred for her young son, especially following our sympathy for her early losses and difficulties, is very shocking, Hammick makes Hannah's loathing extremely vivid. The fact that Finch also happens to be obese, instead of making him seem vulnerable to his mother, just makes a bigger focus for her hatred. Everything about him is larger than life. His great intelligence ought to be impressive to his mother, but only manages to impress her with its bulk.

Yet The Arizona Game is not all heaviness and trauma. The book maintains a lightness of touch and some nice jokes, and Hannah's final decision to travel, to move away from her former life does allow for a slim ray of hope.