Anarchy begins at home

A spring crop of d?but novelists explores the frenzy of friendship and family
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The Independent Culture

"All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion," as Tolstoy famously remarks in Anna Karenina. Yet some families aren't aware they are unhappy until something happens to challenge the status quo. Accidents in the Home by Tessa Hadley takes us to Joanna Trollope country, where long-married, domestically inclined mother-of-three Clare meets an enigmatic, superficially glamorous man with whom she once had sex at a teenage party. He is brought unwittingly to her "happy" family home in a coastal city by Clare's best friend, the London-based photographic model Helly.

That rather unusual idea is the starting-point for a complex set of stories within stories, which Hadley unwraps like Russian dolls. Across the generations, the characters live in a messy network of divorce, re-marriage and step- parenting. There's Graham and his three wives, Marian, Naomi and Linda. Each wife has her own problems, from Marian's difficult father, Euan, to Naomi's violent lesbian lover, Angie. The various children of these marriages – Clare is Marian's daughter – and their in-laws people this entertaining novel. But everyone is mostly pretty decent to everyone else, and it's all made to seem plausible and inevitable.

Clare's meeting with David and their London assignation (which goes nowhere) leads indirectly to a radical upheaval in her life and gives Hadley a peg for the unravelling of all those tangential episodes.

Her strong storytelling technique is compelling. She holds on to the complicated narrative with remarkable skill for a novice novelist. And some rippling, quasi-poetic turns of phrase – such as the "palely veiled creamy blue sky" – are a joy to read, with all those dreamy vowels. The observation is acute, too. With startling accuracy, she summarises modern middle-class family life as being cast into "a kind of slack martyrdom for years on end by sleep problems and the crisis of belief in adult authority". Accidents in the Home is one of the most compelling first novels in a long time.

Cold Water by Gwendoline Riley (pictured above left) also has a wide cast of characters. This time, they are randomly linked by being part of the narrator Carmel McKisko's circle of acquaintances. She works nights in a Manchester bar. Probably influenced by Joyce's Dublin in Ulysses, Riley's Manchester is effectively a character in the novel, as the wryly volatile Carmel veers and day-dreams from one encounter to another.

Although Cold Water lacks the driving cohesion of Accidents in the Home, there are some fine thumbnail sketches. Lucas, the rum-and-Coke drinking Texan, and Carmel's one-time Czech friend Katja, are intriguing.

Just as Manchester has a role and voice in Cold Water, so hard-drinking Glasgow underpins Zoë Strachan's moving exploration of grief and bereavement in Negative Space. The space is negative because the narrator's 24-year-old brother, Simon, has died. The sense of almost unimaginable loss – akin to multiple amputation – is so rawly done it hurts to read.

A professional nude model for art classes, the narrator describes her present horrors in a stream-of-consciousness style in which the mundanity of everyday life ("doing a piss") heightens the poignancy of the grief. She is not named until the very end of the novel, when, after a spell in Orkney, she begins to come through her identity crisis and find herself again.

Interspersed is a serialised, flashback account of her relationship with Simon. Strachan never lets her narrator quite admit that it was incestuous, but sexually charged the relationship between Stella (as she turns out to be) and Simon certainly was. From the dead Simon to his gentle friend Ritchie, Stella's friend Alex and, eventually, Iram – whom Stella meets in Orkney and with whom she gradually sees how she might move on – there are plenty of interesting characters and interactions.

The relationship between Maddy and Selina in Janni Visman's Sex Education gives pause for thought, too. One unpleasant, confused child/teenager/young adult dominates another, from whose point of view the narrative is presented. This pattern is, I'm afraid, unoriginally reminiscent of that well-charted A-level favourite, Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye.

Nonetheless, the storytelling is quite vibrant as Visman relates the two girls' passage through the agony of sexual discovery, as they try to come to terms with the messy mechanics of it all. Inevitably, it's the sensitive, artistic clothes designer Maddy who comes good in the end. Visman does not grant Selena a happy ending, any more than Atwood did Cordelia in Cat's Eye.

Sex Education is not a bad read (especially if you have not read the far superior Atwood work), although it would have been a better novel without the rather tiresome religious and erotic passages that focus on Maddy's fantasies about the Angel Gabriel.