A Girl Could Stand Up by Leslie Marshall

Hooray for more dysfunctional Hollywood tosh
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The Independent Culture

In case we needed further confirmation that dysfunction is the norm, here is another American story of an anarchic family. Leslie Marshall's first novel is a set-up: part one, a careful assembling of elements that will erupt into song and dance in part two.

On a sixth-birthday fairground outing, Elray Mayhew witnesses the bizarre death of her parents - electrocuted during a boat trip through the Tunnel of Love.

Her two radically different uncles alter their lives to raise their orphaned niece. "Aunt" Ajax, a bewigged and stilettoed transvestite, tipples, weeps and carries on like a Tennessee Williams heroine. The cynical Harwood is a photographer, philanderer and hard-core reductivist.

Rena, a frolicsome Irishwoman whose legal preparations are "more like experimental theatre", has been hired to sue the theme park, "Glen Echo". This incongruous posse later includes a scandalous granny.

Elray is a magical child, gifted and beloved. But she remains isolated until she meets her soulmate and antagonist, the enigmatic Raoul, while spelunking beneath Washington's cathedral. The precocious duo embarks on "invincibility training", devising ritualised exercises in detachment and objectivity. "To smother fear, you must embrace it": so they film each other "dying" in coffins and braving dangerous streets as Elray discovers her cinematic genius. The accounts of their "Library of Invincibility" are quite compelling.

Money's not a problem, but you just can't credit it as you would early Anne Tyler, because of Marshall's self-conscious cuteness.

The early saccharine dialogue almost put me off entirely. Marshall excels in mixed metaphors, never using one if more will do. But some of the wordplay reminded me of Vonnegut, and the prose is delightful when she isn't straining for originality. The prolonged Disneyesque conclusion tests one's patience. Granny and Elray's tap-dancing in the courtroom is embarrassing and silly.

Marshall applauds her characters' eccentricity only to cure them. Aunt Ajax morphs into a muscled hetero and father-to-be. The wild Irish rose falls pregnant, while granny knits booties. Harwood disdains the communal rose-tinted glasses, but gains a top job at National Geographic. Elray is reunited with Raoul, and at 16 is lecturing on film theory.

One is left feeling that by just becoming who we really are - provided there's lots of money - we can live in harmony despite our emotional disabilities. A Girl Could Stand Up is both a promising novel of infectious elan - and simplistic Hollywood tosh.