BOOKS: FICTION: Fantasies of the Wild West

THE ARIZONA GAME by Georgina Hammick
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The Independent Culture
"There's a lot of sadness and madness in our family," Aunt Hope said, "I hope you don't catch it." With such a fanfare of eccentricity begins this sturdily crafted, piercingly comic and occasionally painful first novel.

Here is a Sixties childhood in all its dowdy, synthetic glory. Hannah's older brother is killed in a car crash when she's still a baby, after which her father walks out and mother walks into a mental hospital. Hannah is brought up by efficient but undemonstrative Aunt Hope and loveable, put-upon Uncle Ben, who likes building model boats and eating figgy duff but - the battered mouse to his wife's mean, sleek cat - is kept pathetically disappointed.

When Ben has a fatal heart attack, the household is soon enhanced by the more vivid presence of Jocelyn - actress and probable lesbian - and the odd trio move to "Arizona" -"a house, a series of outbuildings and a tussocky field" in the West Country. The walls of the house have been covered by its previous, obsessed owner with photographs of the real Arizona - "Eggshell Arch, Chino Valley, Copper Creek, Haunted Wilderness". Hannah, who has little to cherish, carefully preserves them.

A needy, dreamy child who is never properly loved, Hannah grows into an equally needy - if potentially more disastrous - adult. She is unable either to sustain relationships with men or to love her own son, Finch, whom she seems both to envy and to despise.

And in this fractured relationship lies the embryo of a possibly even more beguiling novel which, for me at least, never quite develops. Fascinating questions arise: who is Finch's father? Why and how was he conceived? "If Finch were not my own flesh and blood I'd love him," observes his mother, and you hold your breath, hoping to be enlightened - but in vain. What, you wonder, will become of this tragic pair - the fat, clever son whose smile is "enough to freeze the blood" and his increasingly unlikeable, self-destructive non-mother?

But Hammick's voice is always smoothly confident and reassuringly mature. Lively, acerbic, intuitive, splendid at suburban detail, she can evoke with luscious, mischievous flair an aunt's embarrassing and unwieldy clothes - "maroon and spinach stripes with a V neck and wide lapels" - or a childhood swimming pool - "the shifting, shrugging water with its fractured loops and plaits of light" - or the menacing "fat boys" and their "tucked mouths". She is at ease with comedy and chaos, but equally willing to contemplate despair and pain. From the start you are with her: you know what she means.

It's a feisty, likeable debut that follows two well-received collections of stories, so it will no doubt bear my small, reluctant cavil. All this quirky, tasty childhood anecdote, plausible though it is, is still not an end in itself. All families are weird in their way. Nearly everyone's past is fractured and idiosyncratic, fraught with small, mock-Gothic cruelties which snag and shape a person's future. It's hardly surprising that many first novels opt to plunder such psychologically colourful territory, but flashback and anecdote alone won't suffice. I feel I have a right to expect ... something else, something adult and relevant and current, some pithy, useful consequence of all this copious childhood revelation.

Hammick almost does it, but adult Hannah and her rejected son are threaded in too half-heartedly among the far more boisterous (and convincingly written) scenes with Aunt Hope and Jocelyn. Only on the final page, as Hannah sets off on a journey of her own to the real Arizona, do you feel that the more significant story might at last be beginning.