Maps of the interior

Intimate Cartographies by LA Alexander (Duck Editions, £14.99, 272pp)
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The Independent Culture

A novel about bereavement, particularly when the mourned one is the beloved six-year-old daughter of the narrator, must avoid two pitfalls. The first is sentimentality, of which there's none here. The second is the danger of scaring the reader away with the prospect of too much pain; and, indeed, it doesn't come much worse than this. Any parent will be chilled, so unflinchingly does LA Alexander face the enormity of her subject.

Cartographer Dr Magda Beard is given the task of mapping an avenue of ancient beeches in the Rusland Valley in South Lakeland, close to her home. The beeches are where, in the not too distant past, her daughter Molly had gone out to play and never came back. What happened to Molly is revealed slowly, first through hints then with increasing explicitness till the full story sits plain before us in its everyday horror: the kind of thing that could happen to anyone.

The pressures of tragedy and grief have also done for Magda's fondly recalled marriage to Jay. Now she lives alone, close to the beeches, surviving and enduring. The book is a browse through Magda's map cabinet and its fantastic, sometimes surreal contents (illustrated in full colour). Each map recalls some memory, some sense, of Molly.

What saves this from being too unbearably sad is Alexander's hard humour, brisk style and sense of fun. "Fun" may sound odd, but it works. Magda is a playful narrator, given to games. Grief has diminished her in some way, she feels; as if her third dimension is flickering like a failing lightbulb. Sometimes she is 2D, flat, a razor-blade or a shadow.

Other times the world itself is flat, with distance and perspective disappearing. She introduces us to the character Flat Stanley from the children's books, and to the weird world of Flatland with its strictly hierarchical inhabitants. Other fantasies take us to Hades, where she swaps sins ("I let her out... Alone") with Medea and Salome, and to Horrorland, in which she wallows.

What she is really mapping is grief; what she is travelling towards is the reclamation of her third dimension. Significantly, Molly is the most alive character, far more than the living ones who surround Magda in a sub-plot about an ecobattle to save the beeches.

Magda's relationship with a soon-to-be divorced man with five children doesn't come across. Something must have occurred for them to consider living together, but you'd never know it. So detached is she about "Housego" (always briskly called by his second name) that she makes the act of sex sound like some kind of new-agey exercise routine. As for a sense of emotion, nothing.

Molly, however, lives: a real child seen without sentimentality, asking questions, making connections, making sense of the world, till she goes out to play one last time. "And then there's nothing more to be seen because the child has run off with her mobile little face and her remaining twenty minutes worth of precious time". Molly lives and so, triumphantly does Magda, who finally breaks through to some kind of resolution.

LA Alexander has chosen the most difficult of subjects, the death of a child. She has treated it with sensitivity and wit, manic levity and the utmost respect, and has created something quite haunting.