BOOK REVIEW / Starved for attention: Peerless Flats - Esther Freud: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
ESTHER FREUD'S first novel set high standards. No one who read Hideous Kinky could fail to have been enchanted, distressed and ultimately moved by its vivid autobiographical portrayal of two little girls on the hippy trail to Marrakesh under the dubious protection of their bohemian mother.

In Peerless Flats, its sequel (though the names are changed the family depicted is clearly the same), the manic Sixties have collapsed into the depressive Seventies; exotic Morocco has been exchanged for London at its greyest; and the instant charm of the child's-eye view has been replaced with the anxiety-ridden perspective of adolescence.

The narrative has no single, dominant storyline - things happen almost as arbitrarily as they do in life - but it centres on Lisa, its 16-year-old protagonist, who is presented with such acute psychological realism that you don't feel the need for a suspense-laden plot to propel you through. Stated crudely, the story is about the effect on Lisa's mental stability of an upbringing so liberal that permissiveness has tipped over into neglect and become, paradoxically, oppressive.

At the start of the novel, Lisa has just moved into a flat on a grim council estate somewhere near Old Street tube, together with her mother and her brother Max, aged five. The mother is just as feckless as she was in Hideous Kinky, but most of her free and easy energy has dwindled into a sort of passive myopia. To Lisa's disappointment, she hardly notices when her daughter does not come in till three in the morning.

If she gets little support from her mother, she gets even less from her father, who has always been more of an absence than a presence. His lack of emotional interest in his children is almost pathological. He hands out pounds 20 notes instead. But to Lisa he represents a glamorous ideal and, if he keeps her at a distance, she thinks it's due to her inadequacy, not his.

Immature and impressionable, Lisa also has to cope with the pressure to compete with her elder sister, Ruby. At 18, Ruby has been living in London for two years. A rebel with few (if any) parental restrictions to rebel against, she has dropped out of college, and acquired a punk haircut, a parodic Cockney accent and a rockabilly boyfriend whose father is in prison. She also takes heroin. During the course of the novel, she winds up in hospital twice.

In a series of agonising scenes, we see Lisa forcing herself to overcome her fears in an effort to live up to Ruby's example - trying drugs which terrify her and having sex, which disturbs and disgusts her. Meanwhile, she craves Ruby's affection, but is pathetically unable to see that her sister has developed the all-encompassing egotism of the addict for whom drugs are more important than human relationships.

Ashamed of her quite natural fears, Lisa relocates her anxiety in hypochondria and in the paranoid suspicion that her food and drink are poisoned. Paralysed by these secret fantasies, she starts sifting through her muesli, examining each individual raisin for signs of contamination.

She becomes so thin that her parents finally send her to a doctor, whose approach to anorexia is hardly sensitive: he tells her to eat three square meals a day but fails to inquire about her state of mind. Towards the end of the novel Lisa does in fact seem relatively buoyed up, but you suspect that this has rather less to do with the doctor's miracle cure than with the fact that her parents have finally shown her some sort of attention.

Peerless Flats is a deeply upsetting story, but it is written without the slightest self-indulgence. There are no histrionics, and it is only by reading between the lines that you realise quite how desperate Lisa's situation actually is. The natural fluidity of Esther Freud's style is deceptive. It conceals a sophisticated capacity to manipulate the reader's viewpoint - we both identify with Lisa and stand just behind her, making the judgements which she, in her naivete, isn't equipped to make.

But most impressive is Freud's ability to present character in three dimensions by implying far more than she actually says. Her people have a depth and a subtlety that can withstand serious psychological probing.

Five-year-old Max, for example, refuses to remove his plastic suit of armour in a convincing scene which is simply dropped into the flow of the narrative. No symbolic finger is pointed. Yet we can infer how disturbed Max is feeling underneath his sparky imaginative chatter, how afraid he is that he might fall to pieces unless he encases himself in a protective plastic shell.

This sort of rigorous understated naturalism is quite exceptional, but it is typical of Esther Freud's technical astuteness and emotional honesty.