Child abuse must be one of the trickiest subjects to make into convincing fiction, and Dorothy Allison has compounded the problem for her first novel by setting her story in the bygone American South, a rural landscape peopled with stoics who spit and drink moonshine and shed gruff tears. Her men live mythical lives of boozing, womanising and fighting, punctuated by bouts of prison; her women are salt-of-the-earth types who hold the babies, slave to the bone and still ooze golden warmth. Yet amazingly, she wrings out of all this a novel of real power. It tells the story of Bone, whose mother Anne paid for her beauty by becoming pregnant at 15, and then at 19. She marries a black sheep called Glen, who starts assaulting his adopted daughter in prose that is carefully imprecise, yoked to the child's inarticulate fear of things that are 'scary and hard'. As Glen's violence intensifies, Bone withdraws into a striking masochistic fantasy life, but meanwhile she pursues a rich, ambivalent relationship with her mother, whose commitment to her husband is bought, and paid for, by the torments of her child. In the end nothing is resolved, but it seems entirely truthful and appropriate that the wound should be left open.
MEMOIRS OF A FELLWALKER by A. Wainwright, Michael Joseph, pounds 14.99
This looks at first sight like the latest last work of the curmudgeonly king of fell-walking - just something to keep us going until next year's 'Wainwright's favourite Provencale recipes' and 'Wainwright's top 100 walking sticks'. But this volume, handsome though it is, turns out to be a 'skilful blend' of previous work, whipped up in a new wrapper to maintain brand leadership. It's the usual mix of fastidious line drawings and grouchy maxims - 'Football hooliganism would be cured overnight if the penalty was castration'. But there is no disputing the zeal with which the man saturated himself in the world of limestone, moss and sky, and on each page there is a whiff of damp lakeland air.
THE PICADOR BOOK OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH FICTION, Edited by Dermot Bolger, pounds 14.99
Everyone knows that the muse in Ireland, the one that brought us Joyce, Yeats, and Beckett, burns brighter than it does over here. This spacious anthology confirms the vitality of Irish literature, by including work from writers, to name only a handful, such as John Banville, Roddy Doyle, Aidan Higgins, Jennifer Johnston, Molly Keane, Deirde Madden, Patrick McCabe, Brian Moore, Edna O'Brien, William Trevor and Robert McLiam Wilson. The population of Ireland, the editor points out, is half that of London; but demographic considerations are soon swept aside by the variety and drive of the 46 stories and extracts on offer. Hard to find anything as coherent as a national identity, though there is an intonation, a mixture of doomy wit and pathos, that flows all the way from Beckett's opening - 'For to end yet again skull alone in a dark place pent bowed on a board to begin' to Banville's conclusion: 'Well, he said. You've pulled through.'