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Twenty-One Locks, By Laura Barton

A 21-year-old shop girl flushes at a glimpse of French poetry in this sweetly evocative debut

For the best part of 10 years, Laura Barton's journalism for The Guardian has been defined by her sensitive prose. In many ways, certainly in newspapers, flirting with the poetic can be divisive. Many might label her lucky to have been given free rein to hop around the country crafting lyrical observations on what she sees. Personally, along with many of her other fans, I think that when she serves up reminiscence or description, it is couched in such blissfully considered writing that you forgive her the platform and focus on the moments from life which you yourself have missed.

Her debut novel, Twenty-One Locks, continues in this vein. From the off, the sky is "bleary and unshaven"; shoppers drift down escalators like "slowly settling silt". You'd rattle out the critical cliché about it being the standard journalist's debut of endless description and poor dialogue, if she weren't so good at both. Her ear for conversation is finely tuned; the suspense of the sparse story is maintained until the final pages.

The plot focuses on a 21-year-old, Jeannie, who works behind a perfume counter in the run-up to her wedding. Her concave chest is no match for her co-workers', who are "exotic creatures, bronzed and highlighted and scarlet-nailed". To make matters worse, she is betrothed to a sappy fiancé, Jimmy, who makes noises when he eats and ekes out valiant but flawed stabs at oral sex.

Jeannie meets another man, Danny, at her local train station; someone who lives with his grandparents but constantly talks about running away. He likes Joni Mitchell (above), Leonard Cohen and Miles Davis (like Barton, I'd wager) and carries around the work of Rimbaud, Engels and Stein so he can woo girls. The fact that he succeeds says as much about them as it does about him. Over 250 pages, we are asked to ponder, along with Jeannie, whether Danny could offer something better for our heroine.

This is fertile soil for Barton's intense narration. The residents of Jeannie's town live where "the rain [washes] them together, their colours running, their lives mulching, till the warm, musky fumes of love swirl up". I also enjoyed the parts where her writing loosened up; the Blackpool B&B with "the large square of bedroom carpet cut out and replaced with a piece of another carpet". When she lets her words flow they become rhythmic; most of them, however, are painstakingly chiselled.

The author's love of the North-West, though, seems to be couched in morose terms. Now, I've not spent much time in that part of the country and don't really want to. Certainly not if there are so many different kinds of rain. Girls apparently squawk like gulls, and most of them, apart from Jeannie, embrace femininity through make-up and perfume. Is that a bit patronising? I'm not sure. I do know that the ending is delightfully bracing, and while this is no post-feminist treatise on the pointlessness of marriage – nor, indeed, conventional "chick-lit" – as a sweet, thoughtful debut it leads you around the rain- sodden houses, paints you a portrait, before sending you away with a sullen kiss. I look forward to Barton's second.

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