On the trail of a wild child

ADELE by Mary Flanagan Bloomsbury pounds 10.99
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That early favourite, the novel which pretends to be an autobiography, seems to have returned, for good reason. The form is good at investigating lost or hidden lives, often those of women, criss-crossing with more conventional story-telling. It makes for another kind of proto-feminist sleuthing. A S Byatt for one used it beautifully in Possession, employing a modern male hero to disinter the secret love-life of a couple of Victorian poets, and deploying a wonderful comic creation in the shape of Leonora, the American feminist academic who was like a cross between a goddess and she-bear.

There are echoes of the muskily perfumed and silk-clad Leonora in Mary Flanagan's similarly splendid Tamara, who dissolves from scholar to detective at the drop of a mortar-board, sweeping about and making the kind of discoveries which win you tenure, not scrupling to abandon ordinary morality when it's a question of getting her hands on the evidence. And the evidence is very bizarre indeed.

Two pieces of withered flesh have been stolen from the British Museum by the feisty and intrepid Celia, Tamara's colleague in crime, who is determined to set right a great wrong done in the past to a dead woman called Adele Louisante. The novel unfolds the story of Adele, intertwined with the adventures of Celia and Tamara as they hurtle about in the Pyrenees in a borrowed car, driven by Martin, their borrowed factotum, whom they've snatched away from his bossy wife. Martin, of course, is worth his weight in gold. He makes jokes, he offers solace and glasses of wine, and is good with the camcorder he's brought along as part of the plot.

Adele, it turns out, is an enfant sauvage. She has been transplanted from her mountain village, where she risked being murdered as a monster, and brought to Paris by the evil Dr Jonas Sylvester. Sylvester exploits Adele's astonishing, precocious and lascivious sexuality for his own ends, prostituting her to carefully selected clients. And, when he isn't doing that, he's planning to subject her to fiendish gynaecological operations masked as scientific endeavour. Jonas is such a boo-hiss villain out of Victorian melodrama, it's a shock to realise we're only in a pre-war world. We remember the experiments the Nazi doctors liked to conduct, and our flesh creeps.

Adele's tragic tale is recounted by her keeper, the sister of Jonas, Blanche Jessel. Unlike her Jamesian namesake, Blanche is not wicked but naive. She falls in love with Adele, and tries to protect her. She has sex with her and helps her to escape. Blanche's narrative hurtles along in such intensity of feeling that it does feel hastily written at times.

By contrast, the modern scenes, with Tamara, Celia and Martin hot on the trail, are infused with the dry humour which is one of Mary Flanagan's hallmarks. She is brilliant on how apparently sweet and nice women can be quietly bitchy about each other: "Celia tried to be understanding and not mind about the way Frances had trained Martin to be a dependable father and husband ... She tried not to resent Frances, she really did. She didn't blame women who still chose to be domestic ... And there was no denying Frances was pretty (the kind that peaked at 18 then ran to happy fat after the first child)."

The novel is such a page-turner that I read it at one sitting. What a pleasure, to be told such a riveting story. Mary Flanagan's light touch is deceptive. She almost fools you that she isn't writing about horrors at all. And she gives you a stinging twist in the tail which is astonishing, making all the pieces of the jigsaw shudder into place.