Meet slippery heroine Roza: "a fast-talking Scheherezade" who wants less to save her life than simply to attract a gullible man. A good novelist must be a good liar, our contemporary wisdom goes, just as storyteller means both fiction-spinner and deceiver. We quickly realise, a few chapters in, that Roza is both.
She tells endless tall tales about her past as the daughter of one of Tito's Communist partisans in Yugoslavia to her besotted friend Chris, to tease and tantalise, to keep him at arm's length. Chris goes along with this: "I only wanted to sleep with her, really, but when you're fascinated by a woman you'll settle for her stories".
Chris's own fantasies construct and contain Roza's story. The novel, alternately narrated by their voices, opens and closes with Chris's retrospective version: he appears, in old age, to be a writer, seated at a desk and reflecting on his life, whereas Roza is just a voice.
Though the reader is privy to Roza's thoughts, presumably for the purpose of irony, her narrative has a shaky fictional status. It's not clear whether Roza exists in the world of the novel, the fictional space the protagonists share, or whether Chris is in fact the author of Roza's version.
Chris's narrative, recounted in a dull vernacular as though chatted into a tape-recorder and then typed, opens with a description of his failed marriage to a woman "with all the passion and fire of a codfish... I don't think that most women understand the nature of a man's sexual drive." Chris doesn't waste time wondering if he is part of the problem. Too lazy, or too scared, to leave his nameless spouse, he decides that in future, like the many men he meets in bars "clamped into that claustrophobic celibacy that stifles the flame inside them", he'll have to pay for sex.
Driving around north London, he spots a young woman dressed in a short skirt and high boots, assumes she is working the street, and pulls over. To his astonishment, the presumed tart turns out to be "a respectable woman" and he drives her home. In fact, Roza tells him later, she did once work in prostitution. She has learnt that step one is to sympathise with the punter's view, and duly assures the reader that men's wives don't understand them: "it's one of nature's jokes, making most men out of fire and most women out of earth".
She refers to herself as a "bad girl turned good girl... resting". Chris is astonished all over again that she is well educated: "I hadn't expected that a prostitute would be a writer of poetry. You don't think of them as proper people... Roza always surprised me by being a human being."
Why would a smart girl like Roza bother with Chris? Presumably, because he provides a doting audience. He cheers up her cheerless surroundings. She lives in a shabby co-operative house, with other drifters who dream of becoming artists. The novel is set in the 1970s, during the Winter of Discontent. "Streets were heaped high with rubbish... and in Liverpool no one would bury the dead... Back then we all needed some consolation". This political backdrop recedes as the novel's world shrinks to Roza's shabby basement decorated in dark pink, which gives Chris "the impression of exaggerated and oppressive femininity...the ambience of whores".
Frustrated, unable to decide whether Roza is a real person or a commodity, Chris finally blows it. Tears before bedtime ensue. Good for Louis de Bernières: he lets Roza escape.
Michèle Roberts's memoir 'Paper Houses' is published by Little, BrownReuse content