Ernest, a cheerful, clever fellow, is magically talented under the bonnet, fixing up his employer's tractor and Chevrolet like a dream; he wants to study engineering at university. His hopes crumble when he is arrested during the Emergency. He gives a speech in the street about the white man flying off to farm the moon, which the police read as an encoded incitement to revolution. The narrator - whose name, annoyingly, we never discover (this isn't Nabokov, after all) - knows that Ernest really was talking about farming the moon, in visionary-engineer style, but the little boy keeps silent.
Meanwhile, there are exotic trips to Nairobi, a leopard-hunt, and soft- blooming but horrible family revelations. All such episodes are written lucidly and simply, the tone occasionally rising to a muffled rhapsody: "He was lulled by the sapping heat and the slow breathing of the sea, rising and falling like the lungs of the world." And the moon itself features as a slightly over-freighted symbol of various characters' wistful hopes for reparation or regeneration. Moon manages to suggest more than it actually says. Guileful and touching, it reads like a promising warm-up.
That sort of minimalist aesthetic is hardly up Kate Mosse's alley. Mosse - the indefatigable organiser of the Orange Fiction Prize - has written a book which, in brave defiance of convention, regales the reader with every item of cutlery nervously rearranged, every fag puffed, every Double Decker tongued by her characters as they go about the plot.
Named after that charming habit that teenage girls have of rubbing their noses against other people's, Eskimo Kissing tells the story of twin sisters Sam and Anna, growing up in the late Seventies with their adoptive parents. Sam is the plump, tarty one who goes to discos; Anna is the thin, clever one who stays at home with her violin. Then, when they are 17, Anna is killed in a coach crash (the day after Sam loses her virginity, thus establishing a novel link between sex and death). This spurs Sam to find her real parents, entailing trips with her boyfriend Peter (inventively characterized as having "no waist"), and multiple tearful head-to-heads in dingy cafes and flats.
At Mosse's back looms the potent contextualizing force of popular culture. How do we know it's 1981? Why, "The Specials released `Ghost Town'", how else? Along the way, Mosse has fun, choosing her words with what seems like no effort of thought at all. My favourite neologism was "blahhed" (for "said") - decidedly le mot juste for how her characters converse. The larger structure is massaged into place with brief asides on the philosophy of colour: "Green is the colour of history", "Scarlet is the colour of loving", that sort of thing. Such devices convince one that there must be more to the book than a few under-imagined persons sproinging through hoops of amateur research.
Ever mindful of some readers' fragile sensibilities, Mosse builds happily towards a resolutely unsurprising climax. But it is only after the final page that one can appreciate the true purpose of Eskimo Kissing. You see, Mosse cares about adoption, so the book is not merely a made-up story, but also a kind of adoption manual - she prints two pages of "useful addresses" to write off to for information or advice. Indeed, what is the point of literature if you don't know where to go for counselling afterwards?