Clammy hand with an uncertain grip

Crocodile Soup by Julia Darling Anchor pounds 9.99

Just when you thought you'd had enough of thirtysomething singletons with their over-personalised and lovelorn views of the world, along comes another one in Crocodile Soup, the first novel by playwright and short- story writer, Julia Darling. Finding a space in an already crowded genre is quite a feat; to make it individual and engaging is another achievement altogether.

Darling negotiates both tasks with expertise. Her novel opens with a plaintive letter to Gert from her mother, asking for forgiveness and a place to stay. When we meet Gert herself, it is at her place of work, a museum where she spends her time cataloguing Egyptian artefacts and suffering her unrequited love of Eva, the canteen girl. The novel progresses through Gert's painful and amusing courtship of Eva - she begins by surprising her one day with a bunch of irises in front of the whole canteen - while providing a history of her troubled relationship with the mother she no longer sees.

This history is a punctuated series of flashbacks, bringing to life Gert's highly-strung twin brother Frank, with whom she communicates telepathically, her father George, who spends most of his time on another continent with his crocodile business, and her mother Jean, a theatrical and overwrought woman who seems incapable of coping with a couple of mice, never mind two precocious and disturbed children: "Sometimes Jean stopped laughing and her eyes rested on Frank as if she had just found a shell on a beach. She looked at me as if I was a letter she had forgotten to post." To add to the general disfunction prevalent throughout the household, Gert and Frank are brought up in a house once inhabited by a famous poet, Harriet Smiles, who now haunts the dwelling and terrorises the children.

For an essentially comic tale, this novel is perhaps surprisingly full of death - ghosts at home, mummies at the museum, au pairs who disappear on lilos that drift out to sea. Darling surrounds Gert with as much of a history as she can, which she then brings to life through hallucinations and surreal dreams. Sometimes this works well to show a child's anxiety at feeling unloved, and sometimes it provides more of a distraction from the narrative of Gert's present.

Darling has a gift for an unusual turn-of-phrase too (museum caretaker Harry is described as "lonely as an isolated virus") but this can occasionally go awry. When the young Gert has a bizarre and suggestive nightmare about being a horse, the ghostly yet tangible image of the "clammy hand" which catches her is rather unfortunately likened to "a great wad of poetry".

These images of the past are used partly by Darling to suggest Gert's development and growth, towards reconciliation with her mother and beyond obsessing about Eva. But they also seem to flit across Gert without showing any real change in her, perhaps suggesting more than they deliver. In spite of this, Darling has succeeded in making her heroine much more than an alternative Bridget Jones.

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