Too much wailing in the backstreets

A tale of middle-class angst and schizophrenic ramblings leaves Harriet Paterson unmoved; The Private Parts of Women by Leslie Glaister Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

The title of Leslie Glaister's new book suggests all sorts of titillation not delivered by its content, indeed much of its framework is deliberately unappealing. It is set in a back street in Sheffield, where two women running from their past find themselves as neighbours: one an ageing spinster, the other a young wife-mother-photographer. Although, or perhaps because, Glaister lives in Sheffield, the city never becomes a living backdrop but instead is used purely as a metaphor for the sort of place that no one looking for you would ever dream of trying, a reference point for mundanity and featurelessness.

It soon becomes apparent that neither of the female characters lies within the reader's comfort zone; both have spiky and selfish personalities which rebuff any temptation to slip into sympathy with them. Fearing involvement, they have little desire to interact with each other, but reluctantly drift into the semblance of a relationship.

Inis is unadmirable in a number of ways, some but not all of which she acknowledges. An only child, she is pretty much incapable of love, until a baby son comes along. She is then left with two problems: obsessive love for her child and an aversion to sex with her doctor husband. Eventually she walks out, leaving the child alone in the house.

Meanwhile, there is Trixie Bell next door (does Leslie Glaister think she's Paula Yates?), an 85-year-old Salvation Army veteran with multiple schizophrenia or similar, whose warring secondary personalities aren't her basic self. In a somewhat formulaic polarity of male and female, harlot and virgin, Trixie contains both the adopted ego of her twin brother who died at birth, and the mocking and vulgar Ada, the flip side of Trixie's religious purifying fervour.

Each is given a first-person narrative voice, until the book itself becomes a kind of mad polyphony, switching from Inis's self-pitying litany to Trixie and Co in turn, who express themselves with descending levels of coherence. When the lost boy speaks, Glaister takes the deconstruction further still, reducing the vocabulary right down and placing staccato phrases like verse on the page: "How can I out?/ If she does not let me out I will." This voice, the least successful of them all, a reminder of how difficult it is to portray madness convincingly in fiction.

In addition to switching between personae, the narrative moves in and out of the past, dealing with the early experiences of the two women. Some of the book's strongest parts are those that deal with Trixie's childhood. Her mother likes to inflict a creepy and cruel punishment on her, making her sit alone in a room staring into a warped mirror, "until you recognise the Devil, all your badness and lies". The effects of this on a small girl are compellingly communicated, providing the key to her later behaviour.

As Trixie grows rapidly madder and more turbulent, the other woman's middle-class existential angst is shown up for the self-indulgent exercise that it is, although this is not perhaps the author's intention.

Glaister's sympathy with Inis suggests that her protagonist's destructive behaviour is all justified in the greater cause of her search for herself, but personally I couldn't help feeling that her family were a lot better off without her. A dark book about two unloveable women.

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