He does it pitch perfectly. Lily O'Connor's voice is as unmistakeably hers as Vernon God Little's, or Renton's in Trainspotting. Her sentences are end-stopped and economical, angry white trash Liverpudlian vernacular: "I was nervous-as." "So it was me on my own as per." "I looked proper fierce." "Lily says no. En. Oh." Her vocabulary is all Anglo-Saxon - "The scabs on my knees they cracked and stang like fuck" - there's no Latinate romantic language here. It wouldn't belong in a bleak book like this. Lily would call any word over four syllables "poncy as fuck", for a start.
Lily was a neglected child, emotionally damaged by her hostile mother. Literally damaged, too: she has temporal lobe epilepsy because her mother threw her down the stairs as a baby. The book is punctuated both by drawings of Lily's medication - the little pills and capsules which divide up her days - and by her fits, which are denoted by full pages with "HERGH herr NEEE aaaa GGreee" printed over the top of one another in a juddering jumble. It's a brilliantly original conceit. Dostoevsky may have written epileptic fits into his novels (Prince Myshkin in The Idiot has several) but he never took whole pages out to represent them graphically.
Lily's fits are also described in eloquent prose. "Sometimes God shouts BOO into your soul, his breath knocks you to the floor. Sometimes it's like warm trickles running from your feet up to your head." These poetic passages, as well as providing a fascinating insight into the condition, work as a foil to the choppy, abrasive dialogue and street-toughness: the pace of this book never flags.
Elements of the plot don't ring true, however. Lily arrives in London looking for her long-lost brother, and is taken in by Mel, a lonely female investment banker who gives her unconditional love and support. While this is necessary for Lily's character development (she blossoms under Mel's care) it just doesn't seem very likely, unfortunately - even if, as is hinted, Mel is a lesbian secretly in love with Lily. There isn't enough chemistry between Mel and Lily for this to be believable, though you can see the joins where Robinson has tried to build some in by having Lily say "there's that fizz between us again". This is not quite enough to convince.
Generally, though, Ray Robinson is sure-footed. He pulls off several dramatic plot twists expertly. Lily falls for an electrician, Dave, who seems like a promising partner (a girl with electricity running haywire in her temporal lobe needs an electrician - geddit?) but in a coup de foudre Lily realises he is - well, I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. Safe to say he ain't using his screwdriver right.
Lily O'Connor, lippy anti-heroine, comes out with some gems of misanthropy. To her, ambulance crews are "jumped up fucking van drivers"; to her, a mother pushing a pram looks as if she is "wondering where to ditch the screaming little fucker". Her only redeeming quality is that although she has suffered abuse, she does not perpetrate abuse herself. Yet, due to Ray Robinson's skill, we find that as Lily embarks, at the end of the book, on a quest to find her father in Ireland (all she knows is that he runs a pub called "O'Connor's" - good luck to her), we are sad to leave her company.