Happy Birthday and All That by Rebecca Smith

Babies are the new battlefield and mum-lit is booming. Amanda Craig is disappointed by an over-hyped slice of domestic life and strife
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The Independent Culture

"Viciousness in the kitchen!/ The potatoes hiss ... And my child - look at her, face down on the floor,/ Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear -"

When Sylvia Plath wrote "Lesbos" in 1962, she began a literary vogue for domestic rebellion that lingers to this day. Her Medea-like shriek of rage and fury at the position women find themselves in, once they have children, was powerfully modified by writers from Margaret Drabble and Fay Weldon to Helen Simpson and Julie Myerson, but it remains a life-changing experience for those over 30. More recently, this topos has become even more accommodating as a source of romantic comedy, or mum-lit, as penned by Sabine Durrant and India Knight. Whether this is a positive development remains open to debate. However, if child-bearing and rearing are the female equivalent of going to battle, then these represent a genre that deserves to be taken as seriously as novels set in the First World War.

Rebecca Smith's place on the new Granta Best of Young British Novelists list should therefore be the cause of some rejoicing. Her second novel, Happy Birthday and All That, is set deep in Nappy Valley, featuring a heroine called Posy ("unfortunate but true") with four small children and a feckless band-playing husband, Frank. Polly has always dreamt of being the heroine of a Françoise Sagan novel, but now realises that, like Lucy Jordan, she'll never ride through Paris in a sportscar or, indeed, become a member of the Thin Legs Club of slim, stylish mums at the school gate. Instead of being a Woman Who Runs with Wolves she is one who Bathes With Slugs. Her sister Flora, by contrast, is an efficient and kindly organiser who sorts things out as a profession. Where Posy dreams of having a lifestyle as seen in Boden catalogues, Flora gets paid to give other people a clutter-free, colour co-ordinated existence, and finds happiness as a lesbian. Meanwhile Frank, intermittently employed by his family to hand out brochures for a cleaning company, is far too busy playing rock at nights and shagging the ruthless but stupid Melanie to help. She gets pregnant. Posy finds out. Frank takes off, literally, in a balloon.

That's pretty much it, as far as the plot goes. Such charm and appeal as Smith's novel has must therefore revolve around its cast and style. Unfortunately, the only character given any depth is Posy, who is insufficiently interesting. The dreary litany of full-time motherhood is described with heartfelt pity, even if readers may fail to sympathise with any character inheriting a sum sufficient to buy a large house near a desirable state school. It is dismaying to find a novel about motherhood in which the children are not individuated, and seen almost entirely as drags on their drudge-like mother. Even Plath at her most angry saw her children's beauty, even if she could not find salvation in it. The author's best assets are a comic sense of the domestic surreal: I laughed at Posy and Flora's send-up of Laura Ashley's fabric patterns. If you enjoy the minutiae of home life as mildly hellish, rather than full-blown Stürm und Drang, then this may well please.

One cannot but wonder, however, what the Granta judges thought they were doing in raising up this poor young writer to serious scrutiny. Have they not realised that dozens of observations about the mother's lot are weaker, less funny versions of what has been better said by others? To compare her, as Ian Jack does, to Jane Austen is to invite utter fury. Smith has a gentle wit and a benign perceptiveness that needs nurturing not hyping. If she blossoms once she is past the battlefield of child-rearing, it will be despite, not because of Granta.

Amanda Craig's new novel, 'Love in Idleness', is published by Little, Brown

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