Kate Long's Swallowing Grandma follows her bestselling debut, The Bad Mother's Handbook, and shares its dour humour. Fat, friendless, clever Katherine gets a parcel of perfect clothes on her 18th birthday. Who could have given them? Certainly not Poll, her poisonous, half-blind grandma, who has never ceased mourning her perfect son, Katherine's father, killed by Katherine's unmarried mother in a car accident.
Poll has grudgingly provided a home, but filled her granddaughter's head with fears of colds, rapists, failure and humiliation. Dressed in A-line skirts, a grey cardigan and knee socks, poor Katherine thinks she is "too revolting to live". Reduced to clipping her body hair with nail-clippers, she hides out in the library and re-reads Pride and Prejudice as her comfort blanket.
Now, however, Katherine is starting to fight back against Poll and her lecherous friend Dogman. She has met her cousin Callum, who is not what he seems, and has a couple of librarians nicknamed Miss Dragon and Miss Mouse on her side, as well as a pushy headmistress. She gets the coolest girl in her class to like her by completing a hexagon made of rolled-up newspapers, and embarks upon transforming herself through cosmetics and bulimia. She gets good A levels, and a place at Oxford that she intends to turn down.
All these scenes would not be out of place in a novel for teenagers, but for the character of Poll. Hatred carries its own energy, and it's hard (particularly when the heroine shares the same name as her author) not to conclude this grandma is drawn from life.
Stubborn, sarcastic, miserly, mendacious and self-pitying, Poll has intimidated everyone for 60 years. She fakes faints in supermarkets to get a free bottle of Bailey's and has given Kat a childhood so lonely she sees clouds as messages from her dead Dad.
It is always easier to portray grotesques in fiction, as in art, and some of the details here owe as much to crudeness as to comedy. Kat's rebellion is punctuated by the weak, regretful voice of her lost mother, whose identity we guess long before the novel is half-done with its half-mysteries and unremarkable surprises. An enjoyable and entertaining read along entirely predictable lines, Swallowing Grandma cannot, in fact, accommodate such a monstrous original. It is to Long's credit that her grandmother may be swallowed, but not digested.
Amanda Craig's novel 'Love in Idleness' is published by AbacusReuse content