Independent choice: Fiction for girls by Mary Scott

Pick of the week Seahorses by Bidisha
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The Independent Culture
Justine by Alice Thompson (pounds 6.99) is the first title in Virago's new V imprint, "an imprint for the Spice Girls generation." So what do girls really really want of a novel? Lots of up-front sex and in-your- face attitude? Well, yes and no. Justine is the story of an obsession with a beautiful woman seen through the drug-befuddled eyes of its opium- smoking, club-footed narrator, or, as the publicity puts its, "Justine takes up where the Marquis de Sade left off." Justine is also a beautifully crafted, darkly sensuous celebration of fine writing which invests the seamiest side of contemporary London with a richness so vivid it is almost tactile.

Justine and her twin sister Juliette (does she exist?) are hardly shrinking violets. We first come across Justine at a funeral - "Justine and death had a natural affinity for each other". Abduction, imprisonment, murder, mutilation, sado-masochism are within the repertoire of the two girls. In pursuit of their/her elusive identity the narrator is drawn into a nightmare in which nothing is what it seems.

Young writer Bidisha's first novel Seahorses (Flamingo, pounds 9.99) is also set in contemporary London: the routine menace of the city's streets is soon realised in the casual cruelty which its characters inflict upon each other. At first sight they are not a promising lot. They have odd names - Pale Jesson, Juliane - and they are poseurs. Will, 38 and seducer of 15-year-old schoolgirl, Pale, is a filmmaker. Juliane is a composer. They have a pompous habit of quoting what Will calls, "the core reading matter for the whole of Western thought".

But these are minor quibbles. A fine attention to the lives and style of the media classes against a bleak city backdrop makes for a remarkably mature debut. Like many first novels, this is a coming of age story. The obligatory sexual initiation, a great deal of anxiety about pregnancy, exams and what to wear on the big date all feature. But there is nothing formulaic abut their treatment. Pale's first experience of intercourse is a scream of pain which leaps from the page. But perhaps the most startling achievement of the novel is the richness of its observation of the city itself and the freshness of metaphor it brings to its depiction.

Kissing The Witch by Emma Donoghue (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 13.50) is set in a terrain already well-charted by women writers: fairyland. The first handful of these 13 stories follow the tried and tested subversion of the genre: Cinderella throws away her slipper, the goose girl decides life in the open fields offers better prospects than the jewelled confines of the castle. But as the light, ethereal tales continue, Donaghue allows their tellers (all women) to create their own destiny in more unpredictable ways. If girls on top means girls being as good as these three writers then three cheers for their elevation.

Louise Bagshawe isn't a good writer. She says so in the press release accompanying her third novel, Tall Poppies (Orion, pounds 9.99). "I don't have any pretensions to fine writing. I'm a real pushy, aggressive woman. Princess Diana is not a role model for me. Margaret Thatcher is!" Well I've never heard tell of Mrs T sleeping her way onto the board of a pharmaceutical company, which is the main claim to fame of Nina, one of the two protagonists. The other, Elizabeth, is also dependent on men to give her an entree into the business world. She is prevented by her rich daddy from doing anything apart from sit around in the family castle waiting for a suitable suitor. Lacking the courage to leave, she fetches up in a Swiss finishing school where she becomes a champion skier and does a great deal of bonking.

The appeal of this brand of fiction lies not in credible character or convincing action, but in a headlong dash from one cliff-hanging scene to another. An unwanted pregnancy, the glamour of the ski slopes, a near fatal accident: it all fairly dashes along. Yet it is curiously timid and conventional. As Bagshawe declares, "Most of the sex takes place between engaged or married couples and everyone gets their just desserts". Thompson and Bidisha have no such qualms. Nor do they feel the need to protest that their prose isn't up to scratch. They just get on with the job of offering us some very fine writing indeed.

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