Grievance By Marguerite Alexander

A family at war with history, love and shame
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The Independent Culture

Returning from sabbatical leave, Steven Woolf, lecturer and narcissist, catches sight of a beautiful student under the autumn trees, pensively watching a boy with Downs syndrome pass by in a group. The boy is waving a brilliant pink chiffon scarf in elaborate loops. The girl remains unaware of the man's fascination. This epiphany leads into the story of Steve's infatuation with Nora, a Catholic Northern Irish girl in his Irish literature class. Steve is that deadly stock figure, "the star of the English department", who sheds fallacious starlight on his chosen.

Nora's brother Felix has Downs, which in her Irish community is experienced as a shocking stigma. Her parents' dismay at their son's affliction marks Nora's childhood. Leaving for an English university, she has hoped for release. But the British students and teachers read a romance into her Celtic origins that recoils against her. She seems set fair to become a sacrifice both to Steve's restless search for dominance and to her fellow students' callow envy.

The best sections of this interesting but flawed debut novel delve back into the past to detail Nora's anguished childhood and adolescence, caught between her tenderness for the widely-smiling, silken-haired Felix, her mother Bernie's indignant shame, and her father Gerald's retreat into arrogant nationalism. The tightly concentrated writing in these chapters expresses the stunting bitterness and violent self-contempt kept behind closed doors around a child who is seen by everyone but his sister as a monster.

The parents meet the outside world with pathological recalcitrance or, in the mother's case, by reclusive denial and comfort-eating. There is a painfully touching scene where Felix and Bernie watch television, stuffing themselves with junk food, more harmoniously at one than they have ever been.

The harrowing experience of a child growing up in a family made brutal by social shame is powerfully rendered. On Ash Wednesday, revealing to the arrayed mothers, grandmothers and teachers that "she was dressed to kill but couldn't manage her own son", Bernie's humiliation sends her into angrier retreat. Because the whole experience is seen from Nora's wincing perspective, there is an aching truthfulness in the writing.

The sections dealing with Nora in London are less successful. Pace is slow as long conversations about Joyce, Ireland, Shakespeare and Synge take the place of action. Characterisation suffers from the author's awkward use of third-person narrative: Steve comes over as a loquacious bore and the chorus of students speaks like no modern student I have ever encountered.

Nevertheless, Grievance will stay with me for the emotional truth of its Irish sections, especially the excruciating knot of family relationships. These culminate in a revelation which makes it essential for Nora to leave the household, even at the cost of abandoning Felix to the slender mercies of their parents - and to his own exile. We shall certainly hear more of Marguerite Alexander.

Stevie Davies's novel 'Kith & Kin' is published by Phoenix