Dolly mixtures

Review: VIOLET by Selima Hill, Bloodaxe pounds 6.95
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Selima Hill has carved out a bizarre, funny, unsettling manner of address all her own, a sort of Freudian theology made up of deadpan observation, outrageous home truths and freewheeling fantasy. The long sentences go cartwheeling down the page like Alice on speed, conjuring up more white rabbits and Red Queens than the sober-minded reader knows quite what to do with.

The cast in this latest instalment of the looking-glass saga is small and intense. It consists of the narrator and her demonic feelings; her sister, whom she apparently loathes, and loves, and is bitterly jealous of; her mother, who is in hospital dying, or already dead; and her ex-husband, who, like all other members of the species, is inadequate. A large number of animals is in attendance, furry, hairy, fishy, spidery or winged: they might be the lamb of God or the wolf of vengeance, but mostly they're cuddly and non-threatening ("I'm giving birth to ducks, / they waddle off, / adorable, ridiculous"), in sharp contrast to the humans, who provoke a dozen murderous thoughts a minute.

Violet is a doll, jointly owned by the sisters, "that used to smell of violet cachous. / Or did I just imagine it? The kisses? / Did I just imagine those as well? / Give us back the bald velvet face /... give us back the cheeks we kissed to shreds / so we can learn tenderness again." The Plathian note recurs in the last line, where a short phase is repeated three times.

The manner is dreamy, faux-naif, Stevie Smithish, but a Stevie who has absorbed Sylvia and a good many anthropologists, and grafted them on to a vast embroidery about repression and desire. The results are often very funny, as in "My Sister's Jeans" ("What she has done she has / squeezed herself into some shorts / so shockingly short they extrude her like polystyrene") and "My Sister Wants a Muff" ("most of all she wants my late father - / the way a chandelier would a cosh").

As the book progresses, Hill drops the stiff iambics and gets into her familiar mode, in which images come thick and fast and the narrative is driven by a desire to make her sentences as long, awkward, complicated and expressive as the feelings to which she is giving a long rein. The squalid little secrets of the family, as one Reith lecturer called them, are given short shrift here.

What she needs, wants, must and will have is true love, which arrives rather feyly in the form of waterfalls, cows, wild horses, a "small man / who roams the world in search of waterfalls, / a woman's eyelids tucked behind his ear". By the time she's got her white satin wedding-dress on he's a bull-terrier, an eel, a jockey, and there's "a bed piled high for him and me / with eiderdowns that hold a million lips / peeled from the heads of skilfully-dried / small lovers". She's armed against disappointment: the fantasy mode beats as it sweeps as it cleans.

There's much to admire in Hill's explorations of waywardness, her psychic sleuthing, the way she pins her wriggling self down on the page in technicoloured rage and love. Doubts creep in when she disperses the "I" all round the zoo in search of something cuddly to snuggle up to, as though Beatrix Potter might have the answers after all. Men, contrariwise, are too much like "stone" and "marble", or razor-blades, or rouged corpses. They run off with other women in turquoise bras, "uplifting turquoise breasts / you obviously can't wait / to make the most of". Men only want sex, you see, whereas women, what do women want? Read Violet and find out.