BOOK REVIEW / Discovering daddy in the deep freeze

Pagan and her Parents by Michael Arditti Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 12.99; Miranda Seymour finds vivid characters and special pleading in a novel of gay parenthood
Readers of Michael Arditti's moving and powerful first novel, The Celibate, will not be misled by the title of his second into supposing that he has written about a conventional family. What he has done, as he did in that book, is to make a passionate case for the homosexual's right to love and to be loved.

The narrator, Leo Young, describes the complicated past relationship he has had with two people, Candida Mulliner and Robin Standish. Robin is handsome, Catholic and confused about his sexuality: Candida, with her admiring undergraduate friend Leo in tow, gravitates towards him out of a longing for the kind of aristocratic, ultra-English background to which she feels she has a right to belong. Leo, the shy son of a woman who runs a boarding-house and who believes in sticking to your own class, is able to view the Standishes with a critical eye and see the ugliness of their small stately home. Candida is intoxicated, even when Lady Standish, drawling through lipstick-stained teeth, talks of a drunken husband who raped her, beat her and was finally "dragged from the mud of a drained lake, foetid in body as in spirit.''

Influenced by Robin, Candida becomes a rebel; when he becomes engaged to a nice county girl, she turns up at the party to warn the fiancee that she may be in for a nasty attack of herpes. Leo, as always, looks on and is presciently warned by Lady Standish against the danger of loving anybody too much, unless he wants a broken heart.

Pagan's unhappy story begins after the slow and unflinchingly described death of Candida. The child's father has never been named, although Candida's promiscuity suggests many possibilities. On her deathbed, Candida entrusts her small daughter to Leo, the man who has helped to bring her up and whom she identifies as a father-figure. The choice seems ideal: Pagan is a devoted six-year-old; Leo is a lonely but successful television chat- show host with a house in Kensington, a cook and infinite patience for Pagan's caprices.

The problems, and a sour form of comedy, begin when Candida's adoptive parents, never having seen their grand-daughter, decide that she cannot be entrusted to the care of a homosexual. They take Leo to court; the newspapers dig out every unlikely and plausible detail they can find to tarnish his reputation; his career is ruined and Pagan is carried off by the ghastly grandparents to be transformed into Patience and taught the art of self-sacrifice. (One nice and telling detail is the grandmother's refusal to let her eat one of the jam tarts she is permitted to help bake for members of the St John's Ambulance Brigade.) Fortunately, the story does not end there.

Arditti is unusually deft in his manipulation of the way a narrative unfolds. In The Celibate, he played with different voices to heighten the suspense; here, his decision to have Leo address himself to the dead Candida allows the reader to question Leo's fascination with a character we are never allowed to meet. A whimsical blend of Zuleika Dobson, Sally Bowles and Becky Sharp, fearless and dreadful in her ability to enjoy herself at the expense of other people, Candida is a more memorable creation than poor, decent Leo.

He is almost too good to be true - he has to be for Arditti's purposes, while Candida is mad and bad enough to send Cruella De Vil running for cover. I was unsure whether I was meant to smile as unkindly as I did when, having dreamed that she is the secret daughter of an Earl and a beautiful housemaid, she learns that her mother was a telephonist and her father a meat packer. "You mean in an abattoir?'' Leo asks, trying to make things seem a little more exciting. "No,'' she answers, in his recollection, "there's not even any blood in it. He worked in a deep freeze.''

Suspense, as with The Celibate, is maintained until the end, when we are deluged with as many startling disclosures as in the last pages of a good Wilkie Collins. Few, it must be said, seem wholly plausible. I don't wish to give them away, but it troubled me that Mr Arditti's determination to make Leo a stain-free hero and ideal father-figure has resulted in some over-zealous blackening of other characters. He makes sure that the case for homosexual parenthood is not only validated but triumphant. I am not convinced that he has chosen the best fictional way to win the argument.