Twin Peaks meets the Famous Five

THE ENCHANTMENT OF LILY DAHL by Siri Hustvedt, Sceptre pounds 12
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The Independent Culture
Siri Hustvedt's debut novel, The Blindfold, was a slippery piece. It seemed original, intense, stylish, but it wasn't clear whether its plot really amounted to anything more than a series of funky coincidences deftly aligned.

Still, it seemed to launch a new sort of woman into fiction. Iris Vegan wandered New York City in a way only men normally get to do in novels. Unencumbered by family, past or relationship, she was a lone psyche in shock, at the mercy of a city of obsessives. At the end - understandably, I thought - she took off her shoes and ran for it.

If Iris was Alice adrift in Wonderland, Lily Dahl, the gorgeously eager heroine of Hustvedt's infinitely warmer second novel, is a would-be member of the Famous Five. At least the resulting work has a proper, hypnotically dark, mystery at its heart.

It all starts like an old movie, Hustvedt's dusty descriptions practically forcing you to visualise in black and white. Lily is 19, beautiful, models herself on Marilyn Monroe and is at that stage of youth where "everything is strange in the world"and "nothing feels real". She'll stand suddenly still in the middle of the room because something has occurred to her.

She's a waitress at the Ideal Cafe in Webster, Minnesota, a joint where fat men belch and spit and eat their eggs the same way every day in silence. Like all small-town waitresses, Lily's a would-be actress, and is grappling with the part of Hermia in a local amateur production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Martin - whom Lily has grown up with - plays Cobweb and has recently taken to staring at her and muttering as though he is nursing some secret.

Lily lives in a building overlooking the Stuart hotel where a painter, Ed Shapiro, is in residence. Lily watches Ed painting "stripped down in the heat to only his shorts". Although you fleetingly wonder why the man has no curtains, everyone in this novel is watching everyone else, so you let it go. Fascinated by Ed, Lily decides to strip slowly at her window. Well, it's one way to get noticed and, when she subsequently turns up at his door, the two become lovers.

If the novel was until now in grainy black and white, from this point it moves into lurid Twin Peaks Technicolor. Webster is a town ill at ease with itself, full of unresolved tensions and whisperings about past crimes. There are the odd, slightly deranged Bodler brothers, whose mother was buried alive by their father and on whose land Lily discovers a suitcase full of women's clothes. There's Dolores, a prostitute whom Ed has painted and who maintains a sinister hold over him. And there's Martin, who has been spotted carrying a young, apparently dead woman through the fields. Lily, who (in true Blyton style) is not afraid to trespass, or peer into dark caves or follow up sinister clues, becomes convinced there's been a murder.

The same unembarrassed impulsiveness which drove her to strip for a stranger makes her impassioned detection work believable. But she's also - beguilingly - full of doubts, constantly adjusting her expectations of the world. Does Ed love her? Will he go back to his wife? Should she return the shoes she has stolen from the Bodlers?

You might get to hate Hustvedt's heroine if it wasn't for her delicious physical reality, her transfixing bodily messiness. She burps, sweats and stuffs toilet paper into her knickers when her period takes her by surprise. She sits on lavatories and uses tampons; here, at last, is a literary heroine who walks around with a blue string between her legs. She sings if she feels like singing, drops down on her stomach in the grass to spy on people, gets dizzy on coffee, scratches a mosquito bite on her leg with the edge of her sneaker. She falls asleep holding her genitals "for comfort".

Lily is "drawn" to people and "curious" about things. Sexually, she is an unlit firework, waiting to go off in an unsuspecting pocket. When Ed half-heartedly accuses her of seducing him, she's glad because the word "seduced sounded beautiful to her". When her old lady friend agrees to sit for Ed and the concentration between them blocks Lily out, she says she's hot and petulantly unbuttons her shirt. "She felt both of them watching her and knowing they were looking made her happy".

If Lily is dangerous, it's because she hasn't yet learned how to stop herself. Though the book rewards us with a happy ending, its final, enthralling pages also contain a tragedy - the tragedy that will adjust Lily's spontaneity to suit a world that wasn't designed for Blyton heroines in sneakers, however loudly they sing.

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