BOOK REVIEW / Dying to escape big bad mum: 'The Virgin Suicides' - Jeffrey Eugenides: Bloomsbury, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE ironic tone of this lyrical but highly comic debut novel is established in its opening two sentences: 'On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, 'This ain't TV folks, this is how fast we go]' '

From a chance conversation with a babysitter, who told him how as teenagers she and her sisters all attempted suicide, Eugenides has fashioned an eccentric, amusing and moving American fantasy, set in the leafy suburb of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where he spent his own teenage years. It is a book not so much about suicide - although the five teenage Lisbon sisters do kill themselves - but about unrequited love and the unknowable hurt of any action.

The story is pieced together 20 years later by a group of middle-aged men. As neighbourhood boys in the Seventies, they yearned for the exotic and unreachable sisters and the story comes out of their continuing obsession with them and the meaning of what they did.

Like suburban archaeologists, the narrators sort through a rubbish pile of evidence - diaries, snapshots, dried-out cosmetics, a soap dish, a brassiere - searching for 'some Rosetta stone' to explain the girls. They interview former neighbours, friends, teachers and the girls' dazed and divorced parents. They collate memories and gossip. They find no answers.

The sisters - Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux and Cecilia - were under the thumb of their tyrannical, disturbed mother, who never allowed them to have dates and dressed them in ridiculously baggy clothes. Their father, a mild high school maths teacher, was sympathetic but docile.

The narrators recollect a handful of occasions and gestures. The stilted basement party, the only occasion they saw the inside of the Lisbon house, during which Cecilia, the first suicide, went to an upper floor and hurled herself to her death on the spikes of a metal garden fence. The homecoming dance which the surviving girls attended as a group date, when Lux - no virgin she - stayed out until dawn. As a result of this the sisters were removed from school by their mother and incarcerated in their home.

The narrators made a last effort to communicate with the imprisoned girls, the objects of their voyeuristic interest, by playing 'meaningful' pop songs like 'You've Got a Friend' down the phone line. (The girls' response included 'Alone Again, Naturally'.) At the school's Day of Grieving after Cecilia's suicide all the surviving sisters remain aloof so 'all the healing is done by those without wounds'.

All this is described in a tone that is both elegiac and hilarious. Eugenides' assured mixture of heartfelt nostalgia - suburban life has seldom been recalled so lovingly - and dark humour makes for a mesmerising read. Although not without flaws, The Virgin Suicides is wonderfully original. It could prove to be the start of an important writing career.