A Little Stranger by Kate Pullinger

Even a postmodern fairytale needs a villain
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The Independent Culture

Serpent's Tail, when it publishes novels about women's lives, prefers dark tales of Girls Gone Wrong, the perverse feminine: pathological, sadomasochistic, promiscuous. Into this bestselling category (not so much Black Lace as Noir Juice), A Little Stranger fits snugly. What could be more perverse, in our culture, which simultaneously sentimentalises and blames mothers, than a mother who abandons her baby and runs off to Las Vegas?

Kate Pullinger describes a contemporary domestic world which seems straight out of the 1950s: Fran is confined at home with the baby, unable to afford childcare and so unable to go out to work - bored, angry and depressed. Her isolation seems extreme: she has a woman friend but cannot tell her how she feels. Her well-meaning husband Nick manages a busy restaurant and cannot share childcare. But when Fran disappears, Nick is forced to take the baby with him and tuck him up in his office-cubbyhole.

Whereas in the 1970s this story would have been told solely from the errant woman's point of view, to emphasise how rarely it had been understood, here the perspective switches about from one character to another. The narrative darts from first to third person and back again. Scene-setting may be done as briskly as in a film script or may filter in through one particular consciousness. As a result the reader feels nicely uprooted, unsettled, and begins to realise that unbelonging is the novel's hidden subject.

Pullinger writes lightly and wittily, with much snappy dialogue, but bleakness hovers just underneath the surface. Her story offers a meditation on the craziness and cruelty of materialism. As the old support systems of extended family and community have fallen apart, as emigrants tear themselves out of one culture to search for rescue in another, as modern work systems destroy stability and loyalty, so romantic love and being-in-a-couple are supposed to serve as substitutes, but cannot. Fran, abandoning the category of wife for that of daughter, ends up re-writing her own family romance. She journeys back into the past and confronts her own demons, in particular her drunken mother Ireni. Once she has discovered the reasons for Ireni's going off the rails, she can contemplate going back to her husband and child.

The novel culminates, in the tradition of the growth narrative, with Fran moving on into greater maturity, but we cannot forget Ireni's tragedy. The novel plays with the sentimentalism and blaming that it seems to oppose. Fran is let off, at Ireni's expense, as though the postmodern fairytale of finding your place in the world still requires a villain. Pullinger expertly demonstrates the harshness of her characters' world through the coolness of her writing. The narrative voices are detached, affectless. Scenes are flatly summoned through much use of the verb to be: "she was in her dressing-gown and her slippers. It was midsummer, evening. Outside, the sun was still shining weakly." Emotions are named rather than felt or explored. This is a version of puritan realism which denies the unconscious, avoids metaphor, eschews mystery and beauty.

Nick provides one of the novel's few beautiful images. He remembers sitting, as a small child, in his train-driver father's lap, as they sped through a tunnel towards a tiny beacon of light. The boy, exhilarated and scared, buries his face in his father's uniform. So parental tenderness can exist, after all, and perhaps men have to provide more of it.