Books: A child's garden of curses

E Jane Dickson applauds a double vision of dark secrets

The Memory Game by Nicci French, Heinemann, pounds 14.99

Jane Martello is a reliable sort. When the body of her sister- in-law, Natalie, is dug up in the garden of the family home, Jane is the one who serves up risotto and sympathy to the glamorous Martello clan. Natalie, a beautiful and brilliant 16-year old, disappeared in 1969, when she and Jane were best friends. When Jane marries Claud, Natalie's elder brother, she becomes enmeshed in Martello mythology. The family is her fulcrum and refuge.

So when, in the aftershock of Natalie's exhumation, Jane turns sleuth and directs her murder investigation to the very heart of the family, the reader is as shocked as the Martellos. From the first page Jane, sensible, sensitive and wry, has our absolute confidence. But do reliable sorts necessarily make reliable narrators? Can a sane and honest person bear false witness? This is the question at the heart of The Memory Game, a remarkable first novel by Nicci French.

A thoroughly contemporary thriller, it takes stock elements of the genre (unreliable narrator/revelation through analysis) and stretches them to their philosophical limits. The red herrings at every turn are evolved and involving stories in their own right, prompting seductive notions of parallel truths, and the ending is properly unguessable.

The sheer breadth of the material and the quality of finish would be impressive in any fictional debut, and the well-publicised fact that "Nicci French" is actually the husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French is almost irrelevant. Almost, but not quite. Most couples cannot manage a Sainsbury's run a deux without recourse to Relate. The idea of sitting down and writing a novel with one's spouse is too intriguing to ignore and this reader, at least, was plagued with fantasies of the writers engaging in unseemly spats about whose turn it is to do the pagination or who has prior claim on the wave-washed shore analogy.

The authors have disdained the obvious cop-outs of a dual perspective or time-slip narrative and the writing in The Memory Game is commendably even, the shared style exact and unshowy. Dramatis personae are quirky without falling into caricature. Alan Martello, an Angry Young Man turned literary patriarch and father of the murdered girl, blubs and blusters through the narrative like King Lear played by Kingsley Amis. His confrontation with a feminist critic at the ICA is a set piece worthy of Amis at his early best, but his final breakdown is scary and believable. Separated from the emotionally constipated Claud Mortello, Jane falls for Caspar, a creepy linguistic philospher who has christened his daughter Fanny "to revive the name", but is also attracted to Alex, a pioneer of the controversial Recovered Memory Syndrome.

The title refers to Jane's attempt to retrieve the past she shared with Natalie and the Martellos in order to heal the trauma of the present, but memory proves a slippery medium. Natalie, enshrined in family lore as the picture of innocence cut down, emerges as an altogether more complicated character. The childhood remembered by Jane as a golden period seems quite different through adult eyes. The memory game brings her to the brink of insanity as specific concerns broaden into abstract obsession. Can memory ever be more than an accretion of experience and emotion? Can there be such a thing as a shared history or does all history come down to a narrative which is more or less convincing? What is the purpose of a family if not to collude in a version of events that everyone can live with?

Gerrard and French are distinguished journalists and their roots show in the thoroughness of the research. Descriptions have the authority and immediacy of reportage and the Jacobean toils of the plot rise from a hard-edged world of bicycle locks and council planning permission. If, in the last analysis, the ends of The Memory Game don't tie up neatly in the manner of Nancy Drew, it is because real life is ragged and unresolved. "I think some things don't need to be explained" says Jane. "Sometimes damage should be left in sealed containers, like nuclear waste." In a society increasingly shaped by the politics of disclosure, it is a pertinent thought.

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