Book review / Menaced by a stick of rock

THE PRIVATE PARTS OF WOMEN by Lesley Glaister Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
THE disquieting title is a tease: Lesley Glaister's sixth novel lays bare the shameful secrets, evaded responsibilities and buried pasts of two women. Inis has deserted her husband and two small children in a fit of post-abortion depression. Despising herself, she hacks off and bleaches her long brown hair ("I did not look pretty any more and that was a relief, because I am not really pretty. Not inside"), flees to a dingy Sheffield terrace and reinvents herself as a photographer. But the arrival of this cropped blonde androgyne next door induces a psychosexual crisis in Trixie, who at the age of 84 might be assumed to be past such upheavals, and we realise that Glaister's title is frankly, pungently literal as well as punning.

Inis and Trixie alternate the narration but there are two other voices, staccato Boy and sluttish Ada, who seem gradually to gain in strength and malignancy. We figure out much sooner than Inis does that Trixie is sharing a body with two competing personalities. Inis just notices that the self-reliant, hymn-singing old lady has disconcerting mood swings, and periodically dons a bad wig, drinks, torments the cat and harps on the fact that Inis is an anagram of "I sin".

Lurching melodrama is undercut by the cool clarity of the prose, and it is testimony to Glaister's powers that Trixie emerges as more than just a basket-case from central casting. Her childhood is text-book dreadful: a twin brother born dead, an unloving father who dresses her up in boy's clothes and shoves her into the wardrobe, a disturbed mother who favours "the Reflective Punishment", forcing her unwanted daughter to stare in the mirror for hours and meditate on her own wickedness.

In adulthood, as a member of the Salvation Army saving souls in the East End, Trixie is still prone to blank stretches when her body becomes the playground for Ada's erotic adventures. One day she wakes up with a mysterious, matted scab on her inner thigh, which drops off to reveal a tattoo. There is the terrible, unexplained mystery of a missing baby, a farcical "death" by water and rebirth, and the episode, as funny as it is frightening, of the stick of rock, a phallic present offered by Inis and turned into a weapon.

Sweets and stickiness smear the text, creating an exhausting, overbearing physicality even more oppressive than the pervading sense of mental airlessness. Trixie remembers her Sally Army days in language of tired religiosity, and, when holy Harold responds to the slut within, novelletish cliche. Boy and Ada are banal commentators, prodding the plot along with all the literalism of the unconscious. Boy's commentary is in menacing free verse: "Now I am very angry and / She will be sorry" mutters he. "Watch out / When I'm about." Ada's contribution is more conventional but equally obvious: "I should have held us together. Because that boy is a monster. That boy will kill."

In a climax of stifling horror, Inis blunders into Trixie's attic, a hell of musty clothes and spilled urine, "stenches, rotten lilies, ancient perfume, unwashed linen, the secret, festering reek of body juices dried to crusts". The dual narrative is propelled by twin engines of self-exculpation, though the older woman loses focus and sympathy as we near the sensational conclusion. Trixie and Inis may not be "pretty inside", but they are interchangably pathetic and eminently forgivable.