BOOK REVIEW: A well-coiffed jailbird

If prison can do this to people, perhaps we all need a dose of it
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SPLIT SKIRT Agnes Rossi Flamingo £5.99

Mrs Tyler is a well-heeled, skilfully coiffed housewife in her fifties, reserved and elegant; Rita is in her late twenties, a firebrand former barmaid who works in recruitment advertising. The likelihood of their encounter in the wide world would be infinitesimal, but fate and the novelist Agnes Rossi have made them cellmates, as each serves her three-day term in a New Jersey jail.

Mrs Tyler is a kleptomaniac; Rita was arrested for drunk driving and cocaine possession after an unfortunate night on the town. The reasons behind their crimes, though they are vastly different, are equally complicated, and as the women seek to unearth the root of their problems they find themselves telling their life stories.

Mrs Tyler reveals her humble origins, her illicit adolescent affair with a married man and her subsequent abortion. She tells of her 34-year marriage to the conventional John, of her difficulties with her mother-in-law and her betrayal of a friend, Judy,who was a battered wife. She talks, too, about her need to steal and how it developed over the years as she succeeded, ostensibly, in separating her working-class past from her prosperous present.

Rita recounts the night of desperate debauchery that led to her incarceration, then admits the difficulties in her marriage to Alex, an older man with two children and an ex-wife who won't go away. Reaching still further back, she acknowledges her uncertainty about marrying him in the first place, and tells of the drunken fiasco she made of their wedding. "I keep thinking I'm at the beginning of my story, think I've found the place where things start to warp," says Rita. "Then, just as I'm congratulating myself - ah yes, my troubles all started right here - I remember something else, something that happened much earlier, and I realize I'm not where I thought I was - not yet, anyway." This said, the women do manage to re-examine most of their adult lives in the course of the three days. If prison can do this for people, perhaps we all need a dose of it.

Split Skirt is Rossi's third book and, while slight, it is highly accomplished. She deftly interweaves the two women's monologues. Wry, honest and oddly familiar, their stories are punctuated by commentary on women, men, love and life. "Men are never more likeable than when they're asking women out," muses Mrs Tyler. "I used to hear my own sons on the phone and be so proud. The awkwardness of it, the plain bravery."

Rita's admiration is for a little Chinese girl she saw on the street, who refused to accompany her father into a delicatessen: "she turned her head slowly, surveyed the street calmly, regally, as if there might be some place out there she'd consider going. Her self-possession took my breath away."

Rita's and Mrs. Tyler's lives are rich in such memorable images, and it is Rossi's fine eye for detail, along with her lively prose, that makes this book so enjoyable. The prison, however, remains a flimsy and artificial setting for the women's encounter. More accurately, it is stagey: there is an aura of the theatre in both the organisation and the execution of Split Skirt - an inevitable risk of undiluted monologue. It is as if Rossi weren't quite convinced of the distinct purpose of the novel form. I n this filmic and televisual age, a novel, arguably, must exist precisely to fulfil what no other genre - least of all a script - can achieve. In that regard, Agnes Rossi's endeavour is a little thin.