The Intimate Adventures of a London Call-girl by Belle de Jour

A tomboy in stilettos

WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON £12.99 (294pp) £11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

In a world in which everyone wants to be famous for 15 minutes, an individual with talent and a genuine desire for anonymity must seem dangerously exotic. Particularly when such a person is a high-class call girl with a cult web-log and a six-figure deal from one of the most decorous publishers in the country. This could explain why, when Belle de Jour first came to the media's attention with her mucky online diary and her obscene book deal, nobody could believe she was for real.

Her prose was analysed to within an inch of its life. Her quick, northern turn of phrase was taken as a clue to her upbringing and education. Her lonesome little portraits of strangers on the Tube, like photographs of moments in a life, were scrutinised in the hope of pinning down her whereabouts.

Because she drops literary names and is obviously well-read, she was accused of being a highbrow novelist, slumming it on the quiet. Because her references are popular and modern, she was said to be a journalist attempting a smug hoax. When the literary detectives caught her bringing back embarrassing secrets from the sexual front line, it was assumed she was a dirty old scribbler in the Erotic Review mould. Some even accused her of being a man.

It's true, Belle de Jour can write like a man - and not just in the peculiar way she salivates over curry and chips and "a pint of IPA on a sunny afternoon". She lists like Hornby. She talks dirty like Amis. She has the misanthropy of Larkin and examines the finer points of sexual technique as if she is adjusting the torque on a beloved but temperamental old E-type.

She is fundamentally detached and focused about sex. "[I am] essentially straight," she decides: "I'll fuck women, but I don't want to go home to one." She could be almost any well-read single bloke in London.

But Belle's outlook is quintessentially female - and not only because she bitches about Julie Burchill and blows entire pay cheques on lingerie. One hilarious diary entry, in which she takes home a potential boyfriend and accidentally reverts to full-on "Whore Mode", leads her testily to remind herself: "Never have sex on a first date." After a weary account of one of the more tedious aspects of her chosen career, she concludes: "This is not a complaint - it is a statement of fact on the condition of being female". She's not talking about the sex; she's talking about the leg waxing. Nobody who has never depilated could have written such a book.

As a character, Belle de Jour is confusing. She is a tomboy in stilettos, a displaced northerner at home in the heart of London and as independent as she is vulnerable. To see her, with her best male friend, "blowing soapy scraps of bubble-juice diluted with manky Thames water on to the first commuters of the day", quite catches at the heart. She is kind, but wickedly funny. She feels a deep and fraternal fondness for men; but often finds them beneath contempt. In fact, she contains so many contradictions it could just be she's real.

If this is so, it presents the mysterious author with a dilemma. To sell her soul to Fleet Street? To whore herself around the publishers with the same old speciality tricks? Or to sell the cat o' nine tails and see if she can bring her blunt philosophising to straight-up, honest fiction?

It's hard to believe that this clever and candid new voice has no more to say. Whoever the author is, she should give up the day job. Only then will we find out what the real Belle de Jour is made of.

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