The First Book of Calamity Leek, By Paula Lichtarowicz Hutchinson £12.99)

In the Garden of good and evil
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The Independent Culture

The search for ways to convey the cruelty that men and women inflict upon one another has taken writers from the social realism of George Orwell all the way to the grotesquery of Mervyn Peake. Paula Lichtarowicz follows in the latter's footsteps. Her debut novel tells the macabre and fantastical tale of Calamity Leek, one of twelve "sisters" living in a Garden ruled by "Aunty" and "Mother". It is a world full of girlish names borrowed from the heroines of famous musicals (Calamity, Truly, Maria, Annie, Sandra, Dorothy); childish denominations ("the Wall of Safekeeping", "the sky lid"); and fabled enemies such as "Injuns" and "Demonmales".

But what these 12 young girls and women are doing in this place, and who "Aunty" and "Mother" really are, seeps through, not just by means of flashback (when we meet Calamity, she is lying injured in hospital), but by means of Lichtarowicz's double language. As with dystopian fiction, words convey two things, operating as euphemisms to hide a terrible meaning. And so, the "Sacred Lawn" and the "Glamis Castles" and the "Creme de la Creme climbing rose arch" may all sound sweet and pretty, but "latrine paper scraps", "Mr Stick" and "Truly lying deadmeat in straw" lets us know what is really going on.

The novel begins when one of the girls, Truly, attempts an escape over the wall. She falls and injures herself, but manages to let one of the others know that she saw no sign of the "Injuns" that are said to patrol the forests beyond. Clever, logical Dorothy wants to know more, and when Truly dies, her closest "sister", Annie, determines to avenge her death somehow. Meanwhile "Aunty", the former musical star whose face was ravaged in an acid attack by a rival, butters up Calamity to act as a spy for her.

Both "Aunty" and "Mother" – who appears sporadically on her electric wheelchair with another baby grown from the seedbed – are almost cartoonish, and demonstrate a danger of this kind of fiction: that the macabre spills into the absurd. Aunty's sadistic elements make her more threatening, but in spite of Lichtarowicz's genius for language and superb imaginative abilities, there's a lack of real danger, submerged as it is in comical turns of phrase and the fact that we know Calamity is safe in hospital. Perhaps, though, comedy is the only way to make palatable the cruelties of this world, and help us survive them.