Faber, £7.99, 322pp from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030

A Gate at the Stairs, By Lorrie Moore

The landlocked Midwest is an uncompromising place to live. In this novel by Lorrie Moore, there's a sense that she has wrung every last drop of mirth and meaning from dispiriting surroundings. The author of three celebrated short-story collections and two previous novels, including the memorably titled Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Moore returns after an 11-year intermission with a masterly work that examines how Americans have educated themselves to endure the unendurable. The novel's narrator, 20-year old Tassie Keltjin, has just enrolled at Troy university, "the Athens of the Midwest". The daughter of a Lutheran farmer and a Jewish mother, she's hungry for enlightenment. Engaged by her classes (Intro to Sufism and a module in war-movie soundtracks) and happily scandalised by her roommate's warped jokes, Tassie has never eaten Chinese takeaway or seen a man wear a tie with jeans. Her life gets yet more piquant when she accepts a child-minding job with a glamorous local couple. Sarah and Edward are only part-way through the adoption process – her charge is yet to exist - and Tassie comes to understand she's a witness to a stage-managed act whose true complexity will only revealed as the novel progresses.

When Mary-Emma, a mixed-race toddler, eventually arrives, Tassie is almost exclusively in charge. Baby risotto is Fed-exed to the house, and she's instructed to call 911 in case of emergency. The adoption process is formally polished off in a flurry of support groups and politically correct mantras, each sounding to Tassie as if "it had the sharp edge of a weird lie poking into it". Still a child herself, Tassie lavishes love and lavender yoghurt pops on Mary-Emma, but also trundles her off in her "kick-ass American stroller" to visit her new boyfriend, the ethnically unknowable Reynaldo.

Alternating between the playful and the tragic, Moore, is the kind of writer who shifts invisible gears to reveal chasms beneath. Like a younger and insouciant Anne Tyler, she replays commonplace observations from everyday life in new and subversive ways. The narrative might ostensibly be about 11 September, inter-racial America and an unspeakable personal tragedy, but it's Tassie's induction into adult deception and double-speak that lies at the heart of the novel. "Death and dessert," Tassie thinks at one point, sizing up a bowl of cream and a bowl of artificial sweeteners. "Sweetness and doom...I was coming to see that this was not uncommon." It's what Moore's fiction is all about.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory