Goldengrove, By Francine Prose

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The Independent Culture

They are classic sisters, glamorous and knowing Margaret, and Nico at 13 - inquisitive, awkward and worshipping of her older sibling. But Margaret's perfection conceals a defective heart, and one bucolic day she dives into the "calm and transparent waters" of Mirror Lake and never surfaces again.

Nico and her parents mourn separately, her mother turning to drugs while her father researches his book on end-of-the-world cults, looking for an eternity which could contain his beautiful eldest daughter.

At first Nico, who fears her own heart will give way, avoids everything which reminds her of Margaret, yet her sister seems to pull her back. How could someone who was there all her life disappear in a moment? Nico begins to listen for messages from her dead sister and secretly meets with Margaret's boyfriend, Aaron. Given a Margaret haircut and wearing her favourite Hawaiian T-shirt, she nearly drowns in her sister's identity.

In Francine Prose's novel, Nico loses not just her sister but also a sense of the world's benevolence, and her own innocence. She has grown up feeling safe and almost secluded in the idyllic New England village of Emersonville, appropriately named for great American transcendentalist. In this "time-warp bubble" where there is no reception for mobile phones, her hippie father calls his bookstore Goldengrove, after the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about lost youth.

Her mother plays a "spooky Chopin waltz", while her sister copies the "actressy gestures" from the classic black-and-white films she adores. Nico, who worries about the threat to the lake from global warming, is the only one of the family who lives in the present. It is her rational sense - her love of science and maths, of certainty and order - which saves Nico from drifting "into that hushed and watery border zone where we live alongside the dead".

Goldengrove begins slowly, despite the drama of Margaret's death. In fact Prose seems almost detached from Nico's grief, perhaps because her sister dies just after she has been introduced into the novel and so exists mainly through Nico's memories. Margaret, forever cool and mysterious, is not the most engaging character. It isn't until the end when Nico, now a grown woman, begins to tell people she never had a sister that the reader begins to truly feel the loss.

Goldengrove doesn't have Prose's usual inventiveness and sharp humour, but it shares the edgy wisdom of her other fiction. At first, it seems a wonderfully nostalgic rite-of-passage novel. Nico's town could almost have been a setting in the 1950s with its Main Street, its one-screen cinema and corner café where Nico and her father order melted Swiss-cheese sandwiches. But Prose breaks into this modern American Eden with her passion for twisted truth.

In that moment when Aaron's grief turns desire to perversity - he makes Nico a living effigy of her sister by smearing her lips with Margaret's favourite pistachio ice cream and kissing her - the novel begins to sound more like Prose's other work. Even in the elegiac ending, when Nico sees in an Italian painting the lake of her childhood with her family standing by the shore, Prose shows how the dead will never let go of us.

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