Victorian Valley Girls?

Laura Blundy by Julie Myerson (Fourth Estate, £15.99)

I have a medic friend who sniggers whenever he sees one of those screen murders where the victim takes about a second to die. It's surprisingly hard to kill someone, he says, because the body clings doggedly to life. Death, he says, is difficult, slow and messy.

I'm going to have to give him Julie Myerson's new novel. The opening chapter is, quite literally, a blow-by-blow account of a woman battering her husband to death with an ornamental bronze spaniel. To say she doesn't skimp on detail is an understatement: "At the first blow I felt a soft smashing, a caving-in of bone and brain. A slosh of blood came straight out, hit the wall ..." She even tells us where she got the spaniel, for heaven's sake. And after pages of this, just when you think it's over, she is standing by the body when "there is a sudden, bubbly sigh and a hand grabs my ankle".

I have to confess that at this point I actually dropped the book in fright. But I quickly picked it up again because, with her previous two books, Myerson has got herself a reputation, not only for being an excellent writer, but also for being - there is no other way to put it - very good at sex.

With her third book, she is attempting something new: the historical novel. Laura Blundy is a woman living in murky and malodorous Victorian London. Starting with the murder, the story weaves between the present and Laura's different pasts. We are drip-fed glimpses of the vibrant Laura throughout her life: her leg amputation, marriage to the surgeon who performed the operation, an attempted suicide, her strange attraction for Billy, a builder 15 years her junior, and a child she was forced to give away.

Each event is conveyed with Myerson's usual immediacy, sentience and vividness. Sex pulses through Laura Blundy - an unsettling, power-laden presence. This is a novel concerned with female survival in a society run by men, and the erotic is tempered and over-shadowed by a sadness, a sense of the mutability of the physical. Putting that murder on the opening pages, and outlining an amputation in such unforgettable terms, have the effect of imbuing any bodily encounter of Laura's with gloom.

I'm not one of those reviewers who research the history of textiles just to be able to say, "I think Ms Myerson will find that this particular fabric didn't reach Britain until ...", but there were a few conversational gambits which surprised me. "I so didn't like them" sounds more Valley Girls than Victorian. And would Laura have been likely to say, "Two days, yeah?"? There is also a final twist that is just a little too mysterious for Myerson to pull off with her customary grace. But this is otherwise a sad, sexy thriller, shot through with startling events, grisly details and a love story with a conundrum you'll be pondering over for days.

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