Bantam, £12.99, 321pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Boy Who Fell to Earth, By Kathy Lette

The first three pages of this novel about Lucy, a 30-plus middle class mother coping alone with an autistic child, are so badly written and generally over-the-top that any casual reader might be inclined to stop there. This would be a mistake. For Kathy Lette soon settles into producing what she does best: a succession of often scabrous one-liners. A few are dire but most are excellent. How about "The only hard knocks he'd ever taken had been whilst playing polo", or "Divorce is like a haemorrhoid: in the end, every arsehole gets one"? Or even "A journey of self-discovery starts with a single step. But so does falling down a flight of stairs"?

Yet finally there are too many of them. It is as if someone describing the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome, as here, is also suffering from a variant of Tourette's Disorder, necessitating a compulsive wisecrack every other minute. Even Oscar Wilde would occasionally bore dinner guests with too many epigrams. In this novel everyone is cracking jokes, not just the narrator but also her mother, her sister and her pompous ex-husband.

Only Merlin, the much put-upon son with so many difficulties, is spared from the humour treadmill. He also has one-liners, but they are haunting rather than comic in their mixture of poetry and pedantry, insight and ignorance. And they do succeed in conveying the different world-view of someone whose quirky perceptions fail to mesh with the life going on around. The author has personal experience of this condition and has put it to good use, turning what could have been yet another misery memoir into something so much livelier, however occasionally exhausting.

The overall plot, where ambitious, no-good husband tries to effect a politically advantageous reconciliation with his rightly furious ex-wife, is less important than the moments in between. So it does not really matter that all those teachers and social workers concerned with Merlin invariably come over as insensitive idiots or that Lucy's various attempts at courtship after separation follow a repetitive pattern of disaster.

This is writing that excels in one-off scenes, as when Merlin is nearly seduced by a paedophile in the park because the poor boy has been told so often about the importance of always being polite to others.

The whole story ends on an unconvincing high, but there are many good moments before, albeit delivered at a pace hectic enough to make even Groucho Marx seem something like an elective mute.

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