Fly In the Ointment, by Anne Fine

A waspish, grimly funny adult novel from a writer of children's fiction
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A sharp sense of danger always crackles in the background whenever Anne Fine writes for adults. The more or less settled resolutions that she reserves for her children's fiction can no longer be guaranteed, while the questions she asks often become increasingly uncomfortable. Her latest novel ends with its narrator inviting readers to sympathise with her decision to take another person's life.

Divorced from her non-event husband, and enjoying the single life, Lois Henderson has been sucked back into family responsibilities after her druggie son dies, leaving his selfish and slatternly partner, Janie Gay, with a baby, Larry, for whom she has no time. Not a sympathetic character, Lois indulges herself with frequent, sharp-tongued diatribes against Janie Gay and the feckless way of life she comes to stand for. Any politician going public with a quarter as much about the iniquities of the undeserving poor would be in deep trouble, but novelists still just about have the power to say the generally unsayable.

Even though Janie Gay was once herself a neglected child, this puts no brake on the furious disapproval aroused in these pages by a single mother so unable, or, in Lois's eyes, unwilling to cope. Moving in next door in the guise of a friendly neighbour, with Janie Gay having no idea that she is Larry's grandmother, Lois sets about providing her toddler grandson with toys and treats, while sponging away the tears that are consistent with his being bullied at home.

Having lost her own son, Lois is determined to make the best of this second chance, and her wooing of this small boy is movingly described. Finally caught out in her crime, but remaining on good terms with the man who, knowing all, still wants to marry her, Lois finishes her story in good heart.

Now in prison, she is preparing to tell the parole board that she is truly sorry for what she has done. But of course she isn't, and on this note of defiance, this waspish, grimly funny and compulsively readable novel comes to its end.

Larry, meanwhile, is happily restored to the only one of Janie Gay's lovers who took a real interest in him. How the boy will feel one day on discovering that his beloved grandmother is also a murderess is one of the few issues upon which Lois does not have an opinion.

Bantam, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897