Swinging down the decades in a muddle

Out of the Picture by Polly Samson (Virago, £9.99, 247pp)
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There is a touch of early Edna O'Brien about this story of Lizzie who runs away to London and takes up with an older man - the more so when an old boyfriend's mother pronounces Lizzie "the Devil Child". Eighteen-year-old Lizzie leaves her Devon home after seeing something sexually not nice that involves Peter, her otherwise admirable stepfather.

Lizzie's bohemian family is attractively portrayed. Cordelia, her artistic and determinedly motherly mother, overcomes her own emotional loss to make the best-ever Christmases and birthdays. Peter, unlike Lizzie's invisible natural father, is a kind and reliable family man. Ingrid, Cordelia's long-term friend is nicely drawn, as is Ingrid's daughter Savannah, Lizzie's best friend.

Unlike Cordelia, who is basking in her second marriage, Ingrid has a string of ghastly short-term lovers, down to the current gormless Donald, upon whom Lizzie and Savannah exercise their satire. All the childhood stuff has an authentic ring; Lizzie's dog Muttley; her obsession with ant colonies; her giggle-sessions with Savannah as the two girls struggle to survive their somewhat floaty mothers and share their unsatisfied longings to know their natural fathers.

Yet there is much about this novel that could be so much better. Lizzie's detailed and accurate memory of her father's desertion - the bath, the bluebells, the candlelight, the mirror-sequins on her mother's smock, her departing father's hair - is one that induces scepticism since it takes place when Lizzie is six months old. And her London experience, which is written as though it were the here-and-now, has a predominantly early Eighties feel, for all that she and her ageing lover Tony eat tiramisu in restaurants while Sixties posters emblazon the Underground. Yet there is no sense that the novel is being written with the benefit of hindsight, or that the 20-year time gap should provide opportunities for character development.

The fact that Lizzie is so petulantly dissatisfied with her Paddington flat may only serve to irritate contemporary runaway school leavers who, like Lizzie, work as office dogsbodies. A place of one's own would be a distant dream, whereas for Lizzie, the flat is "a no-trust-fund sort of place", with a "bathless bathroom" and a plastic shower. Lizzie's relationship with Tony is not only dated but inexplicable, since the man is odious. He has too much hair for an 18-year-old's tastes. He enjoys minor road-rage episodes, pitching his powerful car against a clapped-out Ford Fiesta driven by teenage boys. He installs a tart's mirror in Lizzie's flat. He's kinky about his teenage daughter.

There is one marvellous section where the focus switches to Lizzie's mother; where Cordelia's history of pain and loss is deeply imagined; where her powerful love for Lizzie and her flailing attempts to cope with Lizzie's disappearance are movingly set down. By contrast, much of the rest has not been properly thought through. On page five, for example, we are told that Lizzie always wears soft colours and soft fabrics, but by page seven she's wearing her old school skirt, to work. Lizzie, who has relinquished her place at Central St Martin's, longs to contact Savannah, who is an art student in London. She is at some college or other, but Lizzie can't remember which. The problem is that no reader will believe this, since, as bosom friends, Lizzie and Savannah will have completed their application forms together. It is similarly hard to believe that Lizzie has been told nothing about her natural father, since Cordelia is precisely the sort of "enlightened", alternative mother who would err on the side of offering a child too much real life, not too little.

Once Lizzie finds her father, a famous but hermit-like painter, she learns the reason for his desertion. Yet she withholds this potentially assuaging information from Cordelia, for no explicable reason. The author seems to have made a decision to desert Cordelia, and Peter, and Savannah, whose insecure future as a young fatherless drop-out is dismissed in one line of reportage which leaves Lizzie looking callous and egocentric. The concluding focus is all on Lizzie.

The problem, once we leave her family and friends behind, is that Lizzie is not particularly interesting. Leaving aside that she eats saveloys and chips for supper every night, ODs on Benylin, yet remains "stick-insect thin", she also has the unattractive habit of going through people's drawers. It is understandable that, having tracked down her father, she would go through his drawers, but less so that, three days into her job, she should know the entire contents of her boss's desk.

If Lizzie, circa 2000, is not 18 but 36, she'll have changed and so will Savannah. This reader longed to have Polly Samson use her considerable talent to work some of this through.

Barbara Trapido's latest novel, 'The Travelling Hornplayer', is published by Penguin