Books: The loins, the wimps and the wardrobe

TELL HER THAT YOU LOVE HER by Bridget O'Connor Picador pounds 6.99

If I was going to meet Bridget O'Connor, I'd worry for days about what to wear. She is obsessed with clothes and refuses to sidestep the ineluctable truth that we are defined by our appearance. Many writers, especially women, shy away from too many details on what their characters are wearing for fear of being branded superficial or frivolous, but with the zeal that most people reserve only for food or sex, O'Connor storms in full-on, slavering: "A mauve Donna Karen sheath dress ... pounds 595. She touched it all day, reverently slipped her hand in for its cool inside, the frisson it gave her palm ... as though someone were about to lift up her hair, shiver- kiss her neck."

In the first story, "Lenka's Wardrobe", the firm friendship between two friends is threatened by the arrival of Lenka, or, more specifically, her clothes: "I was surfing in a kind of ambient trance ... my hands sunk deep into a snakeskin bra, 38E, my size. Sinead's hands wore, I saw, baby- blue llama shoes, my size ... monkey, tiger, zebra, lemur ... Well, we ain't vegetarians ... We ran round the house screaming FUUUURRRR!"

Each of these brilliantly funny stories offers a glimpse into private obsessions. All her characters are motivated by the desire for transmogrification: everyone wants to be someone or something else. They all have not so much a tragic flaw as a tragic foible. O'Connor's men tend towards the harmless

ineffectual wimp, whereas her women are feisty Amazons. Helen, a collector of broken hearts, is outraged when she hears that her ex-lover is with another: "Lovers were plentiful, but it was always she who ... left them broken-hearted. Not once, she repeated this, not once had they lived to love again." Helen sets off on a vengeful journey to win him back, but not before doing the essential: drastically dyeing her hair and kitting "herself out in a new style - a black woollen dress, pink ballet pumps." To O'Connor, love is not the desire for another but the desire for self- metamorphosis.

Nicola works in a building society's "Enquiries (General)", not because she's thick but because she has "a generally enquiring mind". She is the most likeable of O'Connor's women. How can you not like someone who tells you, in all seriousness, "I have worn, for instance, full foundation, toe and nail-polish since I was 13"? Nicola has a photographic memory and between applying nail varnish and responding to general enquiries ("(a) How long does a cheque take to clear?, and (b) Have we a public convenience in the near vicinity?") she rehearses encyclopedic facts ("Was Julius Caesar assassinated in 44BC or 45BC?) and wonders when she will "find that special place where I will shine."

There is the occasional slippage: when O'Connor tries too hard at comedy or when her characters are too well-meaning - it's unconscious offensiveness that is her forte - but to take issue with that would be petty. There is only really one thing to say: put on your gladdest rags and go out and buy it.

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