How to win a generation game

Funny title, lovely book: Ruth Pavey relishes a clever and moving family saga
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Idioglossia by Eleanor Bailey (Doubleday, £16.99, 380pp)

Idioglossia by Eleanor Bailey (Doubleday, £16.99, 380pp)

What sort of a title is that? No one'll know what it's about". Thus a book-buying friend, unsure whether to expect scholarship or fiction. To be clear, Idioglossia is a novel, named for a word meaning "private language". That's the short of it. The long of it is that, despite all manner of convolution (word games, codes, second sight, secrets) and a dusting of South London grit, this is high romance. Against colossal odds, such as only youthful angst can encounter, true love will triumph. Or it looks as if it will. One of Eleanor Bailey's concessions to realism is to offer possibilities, not certainties.

True love surfaces twice, once for Sarah and Alex, who are young, but also for Sarah's mother, Maggie. Further back in the four-generational chain of female characters, however, the rosy glow gives out. Great-grandmother Edie is a terrible, armour-plated old woman. She and Grace, her sorry daughter, are both beyond romance, Edie propelled by excess egotism, Grace stalled by the lack of it.

Sarah, Maggie, Grace and Edie are all alive, living in unfashionable pockets of London. Their inter-relationship makes the backbone of the story, while the past is interspersed with what happens now. In addition are the stories of the two main men, and light thrown on why Edie and Grace are as they are.

Thematically, this tissue of narratives covers familiar ground. There is the little Polish boy running away from the ghetto to escape annihilation, the young woman driven to madness, the hard lot of the single mother, the strange house with a secret, the healing balm of love, and so on. Less familiar is the quirky delight in wordplay shared by the characters, which lends a sense of the whole thing being constructed like a computer game. Yet Bailey feels for her characters; while much of the dialogue is sharply funny, there is an undertow of sympathy.

To have got all this disparate material to cohere so well into a sparkly, enjoyable whole is a real achievement. Whether one can accept everything being snugly tied up, so that four generations of life make sense and happiness is but a step away, will be a matter for the reader's own view of life.