The Perfect Age by Heather Skyler

The merry-go-round of lies and cover-ups
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The Independent Culture

When you're hot and sweaty pressed up against some hairy bloke on the tube in August, that's no fun. When you're hot and sweaty as a result of a thoroughly claustrophobic summer read, that's quite another matter. So how about spending three summers in the searing Las Vegas sunshine, the setting for Heather Skyler's atmospheric debut novel?

During the first summer in question, Helen, the 16-year-old daughter of Kathy and Edward, gets a job as a lifeguard at the Dunes Hotel. Already life's great traumas are starting to loom: her boyfriend, Leo, is desperate to claim her virginity, and her mother has started sleeping with Helen's over-tanned and slightly hippie boss, Gerard. And it doesn't get any simpler over the following two summers either, as gradually everyone jumps aboard a big unhappy merry-go-round of lies and cover-ups.

The story is told in the third person, but each chapter is dedicated to following the point of view of one of the main characters. Events often re-occur in different chapters, which is an effective narrative device that serves to highlight the duplicitous natures of all involved, and the way in which they lie to protect both themselves and others - the reasons being both good and bad.

At first glance, everyone seems happy - perhaps tinted in some way by the sunshine - but nothing is as it seems. One night, while out on a walk, Edward and Kathy come across the comment "Ron loves Julie" spray-painted on a tree. A few streets away, on another tree, is "Julie just likes to fuck Ron". Edward prevents Kathy from seeing the second, more offensive message, the irony being of course that the second comment is a much more apt comment on Kathy's adulterous behaviour, as well as the mysterious Julie's. Even weddings take place in the middle of the night, with an air of casual encounter about them: "No one else is holding hands, though one woman has her palm shoved into the back pocket of her fiancé's jeans. Everyone looks tired."

Skyler grew up in Las Vegas, and her descriptive powers create a place that is at the same time thoroughly sexual, oppressively hot and occasionally downright grubby, perhaps an accurate reflection of the nature of the tale. It's the little touches that do it, such as the vinyl seats in Leo's car: "The parking lot is even hotter than his lounge chair, the car like a pit of fire, vinyl burning his legs as he sits..." As well as adding a feeling of pressure on the characters and their actions, Skyler has allowed this infernal sunshine and heat to manipulate the story - several encounters and revelations take place in Luv-it, the "frozen custard" store, purely because that's where they all go to cool down. Although I have never been to Las Vegas, I don't imagine it to be the kind of place where people bump into each other on a Rovers Return-style regular basis. However, Skyler somehow manages to pull off the idea with great success.

The Perfect Age is a good, solid debut, the strength of which stems greatly from Skyler's confident handling and obvious understanding of the Las Vegas lifestyle. The muddied morality of the characters, particularly Kathy, Helen and Leo, is treated with a sense of grace and sympathy, so even the most cynical of readers may be hard-pushed to make black-and-white judgements.