Melancholy baby

Carole Morin on Daddy's girl

The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99

Women are allowed to take themselves seriously, whereas likeable lads have to stay self-deprecating if they want to be loved. Or so it seems if the autobiographies of pale English wimps like Richard Rayner and Nick Hornby are compared to the darker memoirs of such American babes as Elizabeth Wurtzel and Mary Karr. The female writers have more in common with the watakushi shosetsu, the Japanese "I-novel" - a distinct form that is neither fiction nor autobiography.

True to gender, novelist Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss follows in the melancholic footsteps of Uno Chiyo, rather than the life-affirming skip of nice-boy Nick. Given that her book is about her affair with her preacher father, this is appropriate. Their incestuous relationship begins with a lecherous, wet kiss at an airport and ends when she decides to enrol at a creative- writing school.

Is the story true? In a voyeuristic culture, the notion of truth both attracts and repels the reader. By using a photograph of pubic hair on the cover, the publisher is manipulating this grotesque fascination. Harrison plays a similar game when describing a teenage trip to the gynaecologist to have her hymen broken at her mother's request. The doctor, a father figure, is mildly surprised, but carries out his task with a series of green dildos. "Their green is a green that exists nowhere in nature ... One after another he inserts them."

"You couldn't make it up," is one response to this bizarre scene. Another is that literal truth is irrelevant. The plastic penises are an effective device to prove that Mom is a flakey baby; and a motivation for the narrator's affair with her father - a vengeful way of sexually humiliating her mother.

The idea that reality should be edited to make a story clearer and more compelling has been controversial since Picasso fell out with Gertrude Stein because she "lied" in the Autobiography of Alice R Toklas (an odd objection coming from a Cubist who invented reality in his art). But rearranging the seating plan at a Bohemian banquet - as Stein did - is different from claiming to have boffed your dad on the floor of his church, as Harrison does. Sex aids excepted, her story is generally restrained. Unfortunately, after the first kiss the momentum fizzes out, the way it does with adolescent infatuation.

Tales of child abuse are dull, familiar and sordid. Given this, Harrison doesn't do a bad job. Estranged from her father since her birth, she has only met him three times when their passionate romance begins. She is 20 and more of a consenting victim than a sophisticated but innocent Lolita. Harrison's dignified intelligence and her dad's narcissism - symbolised by his obese body - contradict each other until she finally realises their incompatibility.

In the claustrophobic atmosphere of The Kiss, there is no room for flaws. A mistake, even a tiny detail, sticks out in a narrative as focused as this one. Our heroine's glamorous young mother spends "a fortune" on a party dress for her, despite the fact that even the most determined shopper would find it impossible to spend a fortune in Laura Ashley. They should warn students in writing schools of the hazards of selecting the wrong brand name.

The Kiss is dedicated to Harrison's mother, who dies of cancer towards the end. Mom's death dissolves the incestuous menage-a-trois, proving her suspicion that it was thwarted desire for her that motivated the relationship between her lost husband and bitter daughter.

The blame, by this time, is firmly on the head of the father. He is definitely guilty of being a bad dad, as well as being a crazy mixed-up preacher. However, the moral superiority of women - which allows them to forgive only each other - is as unattractive as a literary denouement as in real life. After all, although they confused Dad with God during their obsession and made him the devil afterwards, he is just a man.

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