Second-person singular in a family that can't agree

Lesley Glaister regrets that a strong, subtle novel has tied itself in knots; With Your Crooked Heart by Helen Dunmore Viking, pounds 16.99, 256pp
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HELEN DUNMORE'S latest novel opens with an atmosphere that is intense, almost claustrophobically physical. Louise, heavily pregnant, sunbathes naked in her London garden, which "simmers with heat and wasps, cat-piss and cabbage whites." It ends with Anna, the child she was carrying, slumbering in a tent in that same garden. It's a joy to read a book so deftly structured. Subtle patterns of imagery and theme thread through the narrative and, though delicately and unobtrusively placed, these pull the novel powerfully together at its conclusion.

This is a novel about love, loss and the failure to connect. The relationships are looped and webbed between the characters and none is quite what you expect. Louise and her husband Paul; Louise and Paul's brother Johnnie - the biological father of Anna - and Paul and Johnnie. This last is the most interesting: an intense and unequal love between a successful older brother and his feckless sibling. A relationship with little Anna does not figure in a major way for these adults. They are all too self-absorbed or obsessed with each other to spare her the love and attention she needs.

Johnnie is bad news, the crooked heart beating at the novel's centre. He is beautiful but amoral. As a child, Paul vowed to take care of him and has kept that vow, spoiling Johnnie with money and luxury flats, watching him squander chance after chance of a legitimate lifestyle and sink further into shady dealings. Johnnie is Paul's blind spot and he is poison - ironically, since Paul has built his fortune on clearing contaminated land.

Louise herself is contaminated by misery and alcohol. She is apparently friendless, depressed and overweight - Dunmore is unflinching about the less desirable effects of maternity on the body. She flirts with the idea of liposuction, is turned away by a plastic surgeon with a conscience, then sinks into a drunken torpor while Anna fends bravely for herself, watching videos and taking money from her mum's purse for sweets.

Eventually Paul, about to remarry, rescues Anna and takes her to live in Yorkshire, leaving Louise to sink or swim. In Yorkshire, Anna finds love of a kind, from a local boy who begins by chucking gravel at her and ends up her best friend. Together they nurture a new-born kitten, a parody of parenting in which both of the children perform more responsibly than any of Anna's supposed carers.

When Louise begins to pull herself out of her alcoholic depression it is only in order to help Johnnie escape the consequences of his dodgy dealings. Johnnie is everyone's downfall, dangerously attractive in the flesh - though, I have to say, not particularly on the page - and the possessor of a fatal kind of vulnerability.

This is a bleak book - with broken relationships, a neglected child, the repeated failure of love - but it is leavened by the sheer quality of the writing, most particularly its intensely realised physicality. Open a page at random and you're almost bound to find something gorgeous. My favourite is a truly mouth- watering description of a bacon sandwich that had me reaching for the frying pan.

If this novel has a flaw, it lies in the over-complex manner of its telling. For no obviously identifiable reason the narrative switches between first, second and third person, within which latter the viewpoint sometimes lurches so confusingly I had to go back and unpick. The second-person chapters proved most awkward, with infelicities like "You and David champ the crisps" or "You are still walking down the street", to which I can't help responding, No I'm not. This strong, unsettling novel simply does not need this distractingly fidgety device, and would have been stronger still if told in a simpler mode.