The mixed blessings of growing up in the Seventies have been the subject of any number of memorable novels, but Tiffany Murray's new book is one of the few to give the adjective "kooky" back its good name.
Murray hasn't had to look far for inspiration. Raised in rural Monmouthshire, she grew up at the legendary Rockfield Studios, where her father was a producer and her mother the resident cook. It was here that Freddie Mercury hammered out the harmonies for "Bohemian Rhapsody", and strung-out rock stars came to commune with the chickens and the pigs. Murray's novel isn't set at Rockfield, but at a place very much like it called Rockfarm. It is home to Halo Llewelyn, the young narrator, and her unconventional family, including her record producing parents, younger sister, Molly, and her cross-dressing brother Vince. The house next door is occupied by gran, an Elvis-worshipping spiritualist, and her pack of ankle-snapping collies.
Murray's first novel Happy Accidents earned comparisons to Cold Comfort Farm. Here, a more Brontesque vibe is at play. Many romances have started at Rockfarm, but it's the members of the American band, Tequila, that get under Halo's skin. After a summer at the studios these eight "honey-brown" cowboys bequeath an unusual parting gift - a jaw-droppingly beautiful baby boy. From the first, it's clear that this dark-eyed changeling - "part seal-pup, part bloody Heathcliff" - has all the makings of a future rock god.
In lesser hands, Murray's ensemble of snake-hipped eccentrics might have grown tiresome. But it's testament to her storytelling talents that this is far from the case. Thanks to Halo's serious, un-star-struck presence, this tender coming-of-age story captures the very ordinary pangs of growing up in unusual circumstances. The one enchantment that Halo can't shake is her attraction to Fred, the "cuckoo-brother" destined to break the heart of every girl in the world.
In a novel that will put a smile on your face and a spring in your step, Murray marries prairie pathos with her own brand of home-grown pastoralism. It's a world where rhubarb "cracks", cow-pats "spit", and little girls look "dirty sweet." It's only with the unexpected early death of Halo's mother, Dolly, that the mood shifts. Sadly for this closely-knit clan, the stairway to heaven is one that must be climbed alone.