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White wine in a thin green glass

My Silver Shoes by Nell Dunn, Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99; 30 years after her best-selling novel 'Poor Cow' was published, Nell Dunn has written the sequel.
Authors who concern themselves with those at the bottom of the heap rarely achieve the kind of recognition accorded those who write about more genteel folk (unless they happen to be Scottish or Irish, and preferably brutal, drunken and/or drug-addicted - in which case it is okay to be poor). In a literary culture which rewards flashy prose, reading the work of Nell Dunn is like taking a long cool drink of water after a night of cocktails full of plastic monkeys and paper parasols. Her style is simple, her characters engaging. Her plots appear to meander while leading you to the relentless conclusion that for most people life is terribly hard and unfair although courage and optimism can make it worthwhile.

My Silver Shoes is the follow-up to one of Dunn's best known works, Poor Cow, published in 1967. Ken Loach turned it into his first feature film, a verite classic with all the power of Cathy Come Home. Carol White starred as Joy - young, blonde, naive - who at the beginning of both book and film has produced her first and only child, the much-loved Jonny, by the brutal Big Tom. Her life brightens when Tom is put inside for burglary only to go horribly awry when he gets out and they try to rebuild their marriage in Catford. (As someone who used to live in Catford, I can testify to what an uphill struggle that would be). The novel ends inconclusively, on a note of resolution from Joy which is undercut by the considerable difficulties we know she will continue to face. It was a book crying out for a sequel.

Nearly 30 years later, My Silver Shoes finds Joy divorced but cohabiting with a dry-cleaning delivery man called Jeff. Her mother Gladys is ensconced in the flat next door and has a habit of letting herself into Joy's place just when she and Jeff are playing with the sex toys they bought in Amsterdam. Jonny is grown-up and stationed with the British Army in Northern Ireland but will soon re-appear as a deserter, hiding in the sitting room and playing the radio at full volume. If he doesn't smoke Joy's last fag, then Gladys will. The two of them are driving her round the twist.

At first, Joy seems in as much of a pickle as she was in the earlier book, but we gradually realise that she has got herself together, even though she is forced to give up her much-loved work at the job centre to care for the increasingly irascible Gladys. Throughout the novel, there is a great deal at stake. Joy is persistently good-humoured and optimistic but there is always the danger that circumstances will overwhelm her. It is a measure of Dunn's skill that she portrays the bleakness of life on a South London housing estate without ever being mawkish or sentimental: nor do you ever feel that she has a political axe to grind. She simply presents Joy's life and lets readers draw their own conclusions.

The apparent realism and simplicity of this book hide the fact that it is extremely artful. "No tricks!" Raymond Carver was fond of declaring, seemingly unaware that the American brand of Dirty Realism was one of the most highly stylised prose forms going. British realism has always been more subtle but, in its own way, just as wrought and My Silver Shoes is an excellent example. The narrative form is mostly third person but occasionally drops casually into first, as it did in Poor Cow, with the addition of interpolations from the point of view of Gladys or Jonny.

From a more self-conscious writer this would be irritating but we are so in love with Dunn's characters that she gets away with it. Gladys is in her eighties but still has a lover of her own, the silent Toddy. "He's got no conversation," she complains, "he's just a shape in the other chair." She goes to a Day Centre but complains that everybody there is "old-fashioned." She is both individual and archetypal, the elderly relative we all adore but want to strangle.

But it is Joy herself who is at the heart of this almost heart-breaking book. Her life is a series of precious snatched moments alone. One evening, she sneaks into her own flat so that Gladys won't realise she's at home, and hangs some new curtains she has sewn herself at a friend's house. Then she makes herself a prawn cocktail and pours a glass of white wine in a thin green glass, gazing with pleasure at the curtains. Her few minutes of peace are shattered when Jeff calls on his mobile because his van has broken down at the end of the road and he's freezing cold and wants a Marmite sandwich.

It is at times like this that the novel could become crude, but when Joy and Jeff are sitting in the back of his van and she complains that her ears are cold he cups his hands over them and blows hot air to warm them up. Such tender moments punctuate the book - and it is this warmth and gentleness which make Dunn one of our most incisive observers of the human condition.