Grandmother Wolf, by Patricia Tyrrell

Unconventional morality tale rooted in war

Her third novel Grandmother Wolf also boasts robust characters, and examines blood ties, loyalty and love. Into the mix, Tyrrell has added the brutalising chaos of the 15-year civil war in Beirut. Thousands of Lebanese vanished or were killed, yet life went on - as Tyrrell shows in this involving, if not wholly successful book.

Madeleine, a French-speaking Maronite Christian, occupies a house on the "green line" dividing East and West Beirut. The walls are cracking, but this elderly widow won't move. She still has two of her four grown-up children dancing attendance on her - angry, unmarried Brigitte and Georges, a Phalangist militiaman and jeweller.

Cynical, caustic and implacable, Madeleine surprises herself by agreeing to a visit from her American grandson Rick, an 18-year-old orphan. But although Rick is about to encounter lives "shaped by necessities he couldn't imagine", it's not just the naïf kid who will change.

Tyrrell creates a credible vision of the "bony lovely ruined city", which cannot function without its fixers; where the car bombs that detonate daily send drivers careering backwards at high speed. Twists in the plot keep the reader surprised, and Tyrrell's strength lies in characters who embrace the moral expediencies of war. Rick's gold-digging girlfriend Solange shocks Rick with her amorality. Madeleine, meanwhile, recognises a kindred spirit and applauds Solange's apparently heartless opportunism.

Rick longs to belong, running errands for his uncle, delivering copper wires and ring settings to colleagues. But when he joins an ambulance crew and Georges goes missing, Rick has his innocent principles blasted from him. Once tested, he feels as corruptible as the next man and knows he could do anything to stay alive.

Although Grandmother Wolf starts strongly, the writing occasionally lacks finesse. Tyrrell hits some targets but misses others, and tries too hard with flamboyant metaphors. More difficult to ignore are various solecisms, which an editor should have spotted. When the author sticks to energetic, brisk sentences, she's at her best.