Independent Choice New Rites-of-passage novels

Pick of the Week: An Ocean in Iowa by Peter Hedges Flamingo, pounds 9.9 9, 248pp
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The Independent Culture
Novels about growing up can be as painful to read as the experience itself, but Judith Bryan keeps a sense of direction as she explores a family history in Bernard and the Cloth Monkey (Flamingo, pounds 9.99). Two sisters meet in "the 'ole homestead" - the suburban house where they grew up with an abusive father and a weak mother. As always, they quarrel about their parents; now that their father is dead and the "cloth monkey" has gone on the first holiday of her life, they wander through the quiet rooms, coming to terms with their childhood.

Anita, who suffered most, is bitterly critical of her parents. She is recovering from a breakdown in which her imagined companion and fellow sufferer, Greta, has been sent packing. Beth escaped this degree of confusion; always more sympathetic to her mother and protected by her, she is full of guilt towards her sister. Her own price for survival has been the sacrifice of a wanted baby. Chicken George, her hopeless boyfriend, was sent to jail at a crucial time. The cloth monkey insisted on an abortion and, in return, covered up the facts. Bernard was never told.

This powerful material, remembered in flashbacks and dreams, is slowly revealed in the context of a hot London summer. Anita is much exercised by issues of race; her white boyfriend, Steve Stein, would certainly have displeased Daddy. There is a sense of life moving forward again as she plans to return to college, able at last to sleep easy at home. Winner of last year's Saga Prize for new black novelists, this is an impressive debut.

Kate Bingham, an award-winning poet, has also chosen to examine a less than perfect family in her first novel, Mummy's Legs (Virago, pounds 9.99). Sarah is 10, the only child of an overpopulated marriage; both her parents have affairs but her mother, Catherine, is beginning to buckle under the strain. David, Catherine's lover, proves unfaithful, too, and this triggers a suicide bid. A kind voice on the phone tells Sarah to be Mummy's legs and go and open the front door and let the ambulance men in.

Moving back and forward in time, the novel compares the events of two childhoods, Sarah's and Catherine's, and gives an indication that much can be salvaged from this wreck. An unexpected denouement challenges that assumption. Although the writing is precise and original, the continual changes of tone ultimately flatten the impact.

Canadian writing continues to flourish with newcomers such as Andre Alexis, who was born in Trinidad and grew up in a small town near Ottawa. The setting for his first novel Childhood (Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99) is immediately engaging, as the unsentimental Thomas looks back in his twenties to his early years. Brought up by Ella McMillan, his volatile Trinidadian grandmother, he meets his mother, Katarina.

When Ella dies, with her is a bearded man with missing teeth, Pierre Mataf. He shares a life on the road with mother and son until Mataf abandons them. Ottawa is the next stop, with a new surrogate father. The scholarly Henry Wing, a black man with Chinese blood, teaches Thomas to be a scientist.

Alexis has an unusual story to tell, with some flamboyant characters. His gentle, ironic voice makes him a delightful companion who turns aside from the "loving relationship with chaos" (which is how he sees his mother) to philosophise and play literary games.

His timetable - soon abandoned, begun as an act of desperation - lists the events of his morning minute by minute. His close friend, Alexander, turns out to be a grey parrot.

An Ocean in Iowa (Flamingo, pounds 9.99), Peter Hedges' second novel, is an accomplished follow-up to the much praised What's Eating Gilbert Grape. This study of a family breaking up is told with economy and force, from Scotty Ocean's point of view. "Seven is going to be my year," Scotty declares, seeing his birthday cake with a moon-landing decoration.

His father, the Judge, knows everything about everything. His mother, Joan, is an artist; even in Iowa in 1961. She finds the courage to rebel, and leaves home. By his eighth birthday, Scotty has learnt more than he needs to about his parents, his sisters, his schoolfriends. He reacts violently - anything to avoid the sadness - and the reader is with him all the way. The dialogue is fresh and natural, the comedy perfectly pitched: a beautiful book.

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