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BOOK REVIEW / The right to choose floor tiles: 'The Sense of Things' - Alison Dye: Heinemann, 9.99 pounds

'IN A democracy there is no excuse for not knowing what you want,' observes Joan Marie Pardee, the protagonist of Alison Dye's charming first novel, as she selects floor tiles in a showroom. 'People died so you could choose from a range of suitable options.' It is, after all, one way of looking at America, and not in the least inaccurate, for all its oddity.

Joan Marie's America, or her tiny New Jersey corner of it, is like that, in part because she herself is what others might call crazy, and in part because the world is. At 29, following the death of her mother, she has moved in with her employer, Louie Fusco, and helps him run his Italian bakery in a dilapidated suburb on the Hudson River facing Manhattan. She keeps the accounts by writing down 'Today we took in more than we paid out' and throwing the figure away. She helps customers decide what jingles to have printed on their cakes; she gives away free ice-cream so the local kids won't destroy the shop; and she chooses the new tiles for the bakery floor. She has never had a boyfriend; she has never had friends; but she does have countless manias and rituals to keep her safe from the horrors of life. From within the cocoon of these defences, she is brilliant, earnest, and ultimately unshakeable.

Rather, from her point of view (which is how we come to see things) it is those around her who seem not to have found ways of coping: Louie's raging daughter Angela; her alcoholic carpet salesman husband Benny; his lover Candi, a waitress at the Paradise Lounge; the customers in the bakery and the kids in the neighbourhood. Joan Marie does not judge them for this failure; indeed, she is generous to the point of indulgence and generally finds a positive interpretation for everyone's mad actions. For example, she reflects that 'when Benny and Angela met, he was living in a back room at the carpet store with a gun under his pillow . . . This is what I mean when I say Benny is a thorough person. He cares about his merchandise, he guards it with his life, which is a way of saying to customers: 'I appreciate you.' '

No reader can fail to be moved by the strength and buoyancy of the eccentric Joan Marie as she moves, at last, to make friends with a man named Jesus and his grandmother. Little by little, she lets down her impermeable barriers to reveal the absolute blackness of her childhood, and the grave losses, the violence and the unwittingly brutal mother that have made her what she is: someone who, in order to survive, has 'found that once you decide not to notice something, the rest falls into place'.

Alison Dye deservedly won the Stand Magazine Short Story Competition with an earlier version of Joan Marie's story. The Sense of Things, in turn, deserves to be widely read. Its narrator's haunting voice retains hope and humour amid life's bleakest truths, and successfully proves that the challenges that face us all - ostensibly mad and ostensibly sane, successful and unsuccessful, mature and immature - are ultimately the same. 'Verisimilitude,' explains Joan Marie, 'this is my biggest problem.' 'Quite,' agrees Jesus's grandmother. 'In my experience there is nothing else worth worrying about.'