Book: Little Sister by Carol Birch (Virago, pounds 15.99)

Carol Birch began her career in the late Eighties with Life in the Palace and The Fog Line - two accomplished novels about the alternative- lifestyle culture, whose characters tried desperately to preserve something of themselves in a hostile environment. An odd third novel emerged only in the US; a fourth (Songs of the West, 1994) lacked the boxed-in tensions of its predecessors. Little Sister is a return to form that takes many of the predicaments of the earlier books and re-examines them.

It's no disrespect to Carol Birch to say that her new heroine, Cathy Wren, is a characteristic creation. In her late thirties, she has fetched up in a quiet northern town where she waitresses and gives piano lessons, after a stalled career as a writer of children's books. With all manner of private demons not-so-narrowly subdued, she takes a pride in her modest autonomy.

Sequestered self-sufficiency and the romance of a rainy summer night are no match for family myths and legends, though. Cathy opens the door to pale, nervous Stephen, the ex-boyfriend of her younger sister, Veronica Karen. An emotional bonfire made up of 30 years' sibling rivalry (Veronica Karen, as her sister remembers her, is vain, indolent and unprincipled) is set aflame when Stephen declares she is dying from Aids and must be tracked down.

There follows a picaresque 200 pages in which their car jerks precariously into Scotland in search of clues. Encounters with old friends climax in a ghastly meeting with Veronica Karen's ex-lover, Alexander. Working out what gives this collection of fragmentary conversations their lustre isn't easy; the answer may lie in the tension - the sense of nothing being written for effect - and some dark, chilly humour.

Birch excels in set-piece company portraits: a roomful of old hippies taking drugs; a scene at the home of Cathy's alcoholic aunt, after Veronica Karen has been found dying in a local hospital. No one can stop Aunt Pearl's depredations with the sherry bottle, and her niece ends up crawling off to be sick.

Carol Birch's women often show an inability to avoid the exploitative charms of weak men. Oddly, Little Sister's upbeat finale - death and a funeral notwithstanding - defies this emotional straitjacket. Virago should do both author and readers a favour, and hasten her earlier novels back into print.

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