26A by Diana Evans

Love and death in Neasden
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

CHATTO & WINDUS £12.99 (230pp) £11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Diana Evans's very enjoyable debut novel begins with death. Two small furry creatures meet their fate, "staring into the oncoming headlights, into the doubled icy sun, into possibility". This is the joint memory of Georgia and Bessi, identical twins, who think the impact (probably on the North Circular in Neasden, just at the end of their road) hurled them into this life.

Thus, from the very beginning, the novel establishes that we are helpless, small, like flies to be swept away. This is reinforced by Evans's masterful portrayal of the children's hamster, Ham, in some peculiar way a pivotal character, although he has died (and very movingly) by page 14. "Trapped in a cage next to the dishwasher, befuddled Ham, beloved of the little girls, occasionally peers short-sightedly from his world into the blur of ours with a what-is-it? look in his eyes, the perfect symbol of our condition."

The twins are at the heart of the Hunter family, a beautifully realised and wholly convincing unit whose rhythms and tics are deftly captured. Mother Ida pines for her native Nigeria and regularly spends five hours in the bath. Father Aubrey, a dissatisfied man from Bakewell in Derbyshire, drinks too much and shouts and swears a lot. Big sister Bel's playing about with make-up, little Kemy loves Michael Jackson, and the twins have their own world - 26a - up in the attic.

Their childhood, lushly and lovingly described, is rich and bright, a place of apples and roses, sunset and church bells, nectarines, the strawberry smell from their beanbags. Dull Neasden becomes romantic, a hilly, chocolate-aired place.

Evans writes with tremendous verve and dash. Her ear for dialogue is superb, and she has wit and sharp perception: "Sand was better than coal - a light brown black girl on your arm was good for a man's street cred, it meant you could get a white girl if you wanted to but you'd decided to keep it real and stay with the race."

She gets carried away sometimes and veers into purple prose and icky-cute, and her writing is at its best when most pared-down. Occasionally, she can also lose focus, particularly in the middle section, before she finds her feet again with her deeply moving account of the twins' progress from happy if imperfect childhood to something altogether darker and more primal.

Grief is waiting along the line. The girls grow up and fight for some kind of separation. "They get cornered at lunch by people checking, pointing, looking for differences." But "the real differences, the ones that mattered most, were inside, under clothes and in the soul. There was light and there was shade." Bessi travels, Georgia stays at home. Bessi is at ease with the world, Georgia suffers fears and demons.

More and more, there are things they cannot share. Georgia struggles alone, convinced that in order for Bessi to continue to thrive, she must keep the darkness to herself. At the same time, "it worried her wildly that Bessi had never known the terror that could exist in buying milk, or making a cup of tea."

By the time the twins confront it, this gulf will not be crossed. Bessi can simply not experience Georgia's fear of "getting out of bed, getting to the front door, being afraid that you can't lift your arm or take one step forward, not one step, do you understand?" Bessi does not and cannot.

Evans, a lone twin herself, has produced a consistently readable book filled with likeable characters: a study of loss that has great heart and humour.

Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Turn Again Home' (Virago)

Buy any book reviewed on this site at Independent Books Direct
- postage and packing are free in the UK