Wish I May, by Justine Picardie

Raised among the smart and depressed
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The Independent Culture

When reading a novel written by someone better known for something else - Edwina Currie, say, or Sophie Dahl - it's impossible not to bring everything you have ever gleaned from the pages of Hello! or the gossip columns to the fictional page.

This is the case with first-time novelist Justine Picardie. A journalist and bestselling writer, her name is inextricably linked with that of her sister Ruth, who died from breast cancer aged 33. Ruth's record of her last days, Before I Say Goodbye, reached a wide audience, as did Justine's later book, If the Spirit Moves You, a memorable account of her attempts to make contact with her dead sister's voice. That her fictional début is also about bereavement and loss will either turn you off or hook you in.

The heroine of Wish I May, only child Kate Linden, is struggling to come to terms with the early death of her mother. She lives in North London with her eight-year-old son, Sam, and earns a living writing about the "semiotics of lipstick" for a glossy magazine.

As a single mother, Kate seems almost as preoccupied by her parents' marital fate (divorce and shared depressions) as her own. Yet despite a truckload of North London angst, her seminal moments take place not on the therapist's couch, but in Norfolk, between the walls of a very English country house.

Elverson, home to Kate's mother's twin sister, Bella, and her physicist husband, Charles, is a storybook house of rambling gardens and hidden attics. It's where Kate holidayed as a girl, and where she returns as an adult to indulge in sea air, ironed sheets and her aunt's home baking. On a darker note, it's also the setting for an incestuous encounter, and not far from the site of her mother's fatal accident.

Picardie's narrative voice is as bipolar as the settings it describes. In East Anglia, the tone is arrestingly elegiac as Kate and her donnish uncle Charles speculate on the meaning of life, the universe and the nature of her mother's death.

Back in Crouch End, we're treated to a slick Hornbyesque romance in which Kate and fellow single-parent, Adam, get it together over Playstation and take-out pizza. The only blot on the horizon is cousin Julian, who periodically motors up to London, trailing sexual menace in his Boden-clad wake.

Refreshingly low on wisecracks (this is no chicklit romp into the perils of single motherhood), the humour of Wish I May concentrates on the nervier moments of family life. Kate's father, Sebastian, is a particular joy. A shambolic depressive who keeps in touch with his grandson via a stream of Holocaust poems and postcards of Munch's "The Scream", he arrives at family "dos" laden down with plastic bags and embarrassing liqueurs.

Picardie is an assured and elegant stylist. She has written a thoughtful novel about the perils of growing up among the smart, and the depressed.

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