Twenty-One Locks, By Laura Barton

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The Independent Culture

This is what he hated about the North: this eeh-by-gumming and hotpot suppers." This North stinks of chip fat, the houses are damp, cans of pop in café refrigerators are dusty. At the hairdressers you're offered tatty, tea-stained magazines, in which all the wordsearches have already been done.

The rain is relentless and the birds don't chirrup, they sing "the sad, damp song of early evening". The people here are like the Grey Scrubbers of the Gormenghast kitchens: "From childhood onwards their faces bear the same grey sheen as their parents: a sallowness that no amount of scrubbing can remove and no amount of panstick concealer can ever truly hide."

There really isn't all that much eeh-by-gumness left in the north actually, except perhaps for small endangered pockets somewhat akin to the Irish Gaeltacht. There hasn't been for years (even in 1994, when this novel is set) though you wouldn't know it from the way it's still portrayed by many writers and dramatists, even northern ones. Particularly northern ones. Of course there are cultural and financial differences, but why exaggerate?

Too much grim-up-north trowel-laying mars Laura Barton's otherwise promising first novel. Set in an un-named northern town (Wigan, Barton's home town), it tells the story of Jeannie, a girl of "terraced ordinariness", who works on the perfume counter in a big store. She has been living with childhood sweetheart Jimmy for a good while and their marriage looms. As life rolls her along on a tide of dress-fittings and caterers, Jeannie quietly panics.

She meets Danny, who works in the station tea bar, a big-talker who owns Miles Davis records because they look cool, but never listens to them. Danny offers escape to a new life, and Jeannie is caught in a paralysis of indecision between two worlds, unaware that she's not the only one. Jimmy's feet are also getting a little cold.

The dialogue is sometimes stilted, and the point of view changes awkwardly at times – mostly we're with Jeannie, with the odd flip to Jimmy or Danny, and the occasional witty and scathing authorial comment such as the one above about the grey scrubbers. The prose, though, is excellent: "Six a.m., and the kitchen stirs with the smell of the electric hob warming, the reassuring odour of cold air sniffing hot metal. The kettle sits on the back ring, ruffling its feathers and making a slow chuckle and cluck. There are no voices at this hour, just the music of routine: the retrieval of teacups from draining-boards, cutlery drawers sliding open and shut, the jolt as the refrigerator door opens, and the kiss as it closes. Through the kitchen window the morning trickles across the dark sky as milk into strong tea, and a blackbird stands on the back fence, still and neat and watching." Wonderful writing - but it's hard to engage with such a passively selfish central character.

Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Scapegallows' (Virago)