Tart campus comedy from the city of cakes

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, £15.99, 343pp)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

What can be more depressing than the sight, on a frontispiece , of the words "A Comic Novel"? The only possible response is a folding of the lips and the urge to pencil "I'll be the judge of that" in the margin. Fortunately, Emotionally Weird needs no disclaimer. As fictional ice-breakers go, the opening of Effie Andrews's récit - "My mother is a virgin" - is hard to beat. From here on, Atkinson keeps you sniggering and, occassionally, snorting.

Effie Andrews is holed up with her eccentric mother in the crumbling house of their ancestors, on an island off the West Coast of Scotland. Her mother, Nora, has brought her here to reveal the secrets of her birth. Effie, it turns out, is really Euphemia, the last of the Stuart-Murrays, a family genetically disposed to strong drink and weak-headedness.

Nora's aristocratic tolerance of sub-zero bedrooms and oatmeal with weevils does not run in Effie's blood. Our heroine cherishes a suburban fantasy of fitted carpets and lawn mowers. So far, however, the farthest she has managed to escape is Dundee University. In return for Nora's blood-dark narrative, Effie tells her own tale of student life in "the city of cakes"; gradually, the stories merge.

The year is 1972. It is the time of three-day weeks and post-structuralism. In the English department, where Effie is enrolled, names like Barthes, Robbe-Grillet and Derrida zoom over the students' heads like low-flying aircraft. Nonetheless, Effie's narrative is full of textual tricks. Atkinson is evidently a Lewis Caroll fan and there is a faintly tiring processsion of characters decommissioned mid-plot, philosophical teasers and word-plays. "Oh," cries Effie-Alice, "for an etymological dictionary to be carried about one's person at all times". The reader can't help but agree.

The real and vivid pleasure of Emotionally Weird is in Atkinson's delighted descriptions of Maoist sit-ins, feminist consciousness-raising meetings and the netherworld of students hoiked from their "tangle of toast-filled sheets" to chalk up attendance marks on the university's lamentable creative-writing course. Sly parodies of 1970s Greatest Hits - Beckett, Tolkien, Plath - are dropped into the text and expertly matched to student types: the nice-boy nihilist, the hairy bore and the girl tricked out in Victorian garb who looks like "somebody Jack the Ripper would have been attracted to".

The comic set-pieces never quite resolve themselves into a plot, the twists and turns of Nora's narrative have an improvised air, but then, as we are constantly being told, "plot is not the point".

Thanks to the resolute ordinariness of Effie, who along with the other gaps in her reading has clearly never heard of Zuleika Dobson, Emotionally Weird escapes the smugness, the Junior Common Room titttering, that the campus novel is heir to. This is a novel purely for fun. No satire, no social comment, just jokes. As such, it is entirely to be recommended.