Bloomsbury £14.99 (276pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897; Tindal Street press £8.99 (289pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Spilt Milk, Black Coffee, By Helen Cross; Heartland, By Anthony Cartwright
"She had all the fashionable prejudices about us lot and I shouldn't have been surprised because she was just a regular slutty white lass from a bad part of town." So says Amir of his workmate Jackie Jackson in Helen Cross's third novel, the poignant inter-racial romance Spilt Milk, Black Coffee.
Jackie calls him "Mr Coriander" and jokes about "his Taliban stare". Preconceptions on both sides must be overcome before each sees the other clearly.
Amir and Jackie work in a store in a Yorkshire town. Amir is a sober 26-year-old Muslim, dominated by his older brother, head of the family newsagent's business. Jackie totters cheerfully but dementedly towards 40 on six-inch heels, glass in one hand, fag in the other, a string of disastrous relationships in her wake. Like magnets, the unlikely pair are drawn together.
Torn between fascination with Jackie and duty to his close but quarrelsome family, Amir wanders with a poet's eye to her house, through a landscape "where hollow-cheeked, brown-toothed lads in tracky bottoms dragged on sorrow on street corners". When she opens the door dressed in a silly costume, she is "so purely chick that I look down at her silver high heels expecting webbed feet". Meanwhile, his mum is departing into an Alzheimer's haze, and his brother, desperate to avoid the disgrace of association with this "godless Englisher", plies him with a succession of bland brides.
Jackie's tough but vulnerable daughter, Elle, has her own tale to tell and her own prejudices to conquer. Jackie, a loving if inadequate parent, has lost custody because of her drinking and lifestyle. Elle now lives with her father and his new, squeaky-clean, organically sound family, where everyone slags her mother off as a matter of course.
Things reach a head when Jackie takes a trip abroad leaving Elle home alone. It's a genuine mistake, but Jackie makes headlines in the red-tops as "Boozy Blonde Mother of One" who abandoned her child.
"When I first saw that, I vommed up in the toilet with shame," says Elle, with equal parts love and abject mortification. Not to mention her dismay that "the Asian" has appeared on the scene. This is a magnificent portrait of adolescence, and the mother-daughter relationship is movingly portrayed.
Heartland, Anthony Cartwright's second novel, also deals with Anglo-Asian tensions in a working-class area. From Yorkshire we move to the Midlands in 2002. The World Cup is on the TV, council elections are taking place, St George's flags are flying and, in Dudley, Cinderheath Sunday Football Club is about to play Cinderheath Muslim Community FC. The teams have grown up together but the media is building up the race angle, and the BNP are out campaigning.
This ambitious slice-of-life novel appears almost plotless but is skilfully structured. Simultaneous commentaries on both matches are threaded throughout constant switches of viewpoints and settings. This sounds confusing but isn't, as long as the reader is prepared to roll with the impressionistic flow of Black Country dialect. Cartwright is a good listener and there is a lot of pure dialogue, straight from the ear to the page.
Everyone gets a hearing. Main character Rob is an ex-footballer like his dad, though Rob's experience has been soul-destroying, summed up by a remembered voice from the crowd: "You're shite, son, utter shite." Now he is a classroom support assistant.
Uncle Jim is the standing Labour councillor, a man disillusioned with politics, "all the ambivalence and prevarication and fudge". Old friend Glenn, a scaffolder, has joined the BNP, while best friend Zubair is a non-devout Muslim who drinks alcohol and worries about his younger brother Tayub, whose stereo pumps out a growl that sounds like hip-hop at first but turns out to be angry preaching. Zubair and Tayub's oldest brother Adnan vanished ten years ago, and is playfully referred to, on the strength of no evidence whatsoever, as "Adnan the mujahedin".
A sense of unease hangs over the area. Controversy surrounds the building of a new "Supermosque". Graffiti demands: "Who killed Yusuf Khan?" A child is knifed. As tensions rise, old friends on opposite sides of the political divide gather in the pub to watch the big match.
Heartland is like a literary version of a Ken Loach film. Spilt Milk, Black Coffee is more Mike Leigh in tone. Both books are welcome and timely takes on England now, from talented and thoughtful writers.
Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Scapegallows' (Vintage)
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