Broken, By Daniel Clay

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The Independent Culture

The idea of an "unconscious" narrator, such as the one Daniel Clay provides us with in his debut novel, is always going to ruffle our expectations: where's the voice coming from and why? Are we in a kind of Alice Sebold-type Lovely Bones heaven? Are we getting privileged access to somebody's thoughts while their body lies broken and unresponsive on a hospital bed, like Sam Tyler in TV's Life on Mars?

Skunk (her mother liked the band Skunk Anansie) is 11 years old and, it turns out, in a coma. We aren't told why until almost the very end of the story – of course we aren't. Before joining the ranks of the somehow undead, where she's trying to make sense of the events that put her there, she lived opposite the troubled Buckley and Oswald familes. The Buckleys were nervous and meek; the Oswalds were trash. Bob Oswald was a violent drug dealer and his daughters regularly caused havoc at school and around the neighbourhood. After he beat up the Buckleys' weedy son Rick, wrongly accusing him of raping his daughter, Susan, the boy suffered a nervous collapse. Rick's eventual fate, brought about through the lack of care people showed him after his life was ruined for no reason, was to be inextricably knotted with Skunk's.

There's so much about innocence and vulnerability in this novel. A lot of it is funny, but it doesn't all feel quite healthy. There's a scene near the end of the book where a man and a child struggle, locked together "like vampire and virgin", sucking the child's "innocence out". It's an awful moment that's hard to separate from Clay's urge to use a passive child narrator or his publisher's to use a jacket image with a pair of little girl's legs emerging from beneath a short skirt.

Read this book; don't run away from it. But ask yourself: what exactly is going on?

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