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Books: From lessay-fair to a coo-day-tar

Melissa Benn acclaims a narrative of one girl's search for the language that defeats despair
Once in a House on Fire

by Andrea Ashworth

Picador, pounds 14.99

Andrea Ashworth looks out at us from the dust jacket, sporting a Mona Lisa now you-see-it-now-you-don't smile. Is she sad or triumphant? It is hard to tell. When I closed the book at the story's end, too terrified to go to bed for at least half an hour, I turned to that picture one last time, trying to understand what the legacy of such a tale might be.

Once in a House of Fire is a story of a Manchester childhood overshadowed by violence and poverty and by the isolation that both these things bring in their wake. Two men, in particular, loom over the tale, robbing the central characters of any chance of real happiness. After the freak death of her natural father by drowning when she was five, the life of Andrea and her two sisters is shaped and soured by violent stepfathers. The first is not much more than a brute; the second, Terry, has blue eyes and merriment and the girls love him. Their mother, Lorraine, is called "Lolly" by one, "Rainie" by the other. But the tale of both men's relationship with her is oddly similar. They go from smoochy beginnings to intermittent spats to sustained bloody violence.

Like cowering children we shrink from the descriptions that jump from the page, whether these are the "small" punishments of Andrea and her sisters, kept secret from their mother ("My stepfather's lips moved while my ears rang full of the slap and the water and the party downstairs") or the fights between mother and man that smear walls, smash heads and bring indifferent policemen to their door. "It was a relief when the Moss Side riots roared past our road. Things calmed down inside our house as they heated up outside." It makes perfect, twisted sense.

There are more familiar points of reference; after a brief period of emigration to Canada, Andrea returns to Manchester. We read of school mates, periods, sex and the education that promises escape, not just from violence but the claustrophobia of wall-to-wall television. "Sollydarnosh, lessay-fair, dayus-x-mackinna, coo-day-tar. Devoorjack: I discovered how to get my tongue around the words I stumbled on in the newspaper. It was like tuning in to the future, learning the language they spoke there." As things worsen at home, the future becomes her only ally; even her sisters become distant, drift away into their own stories.

This is not a memoir (thankfully) but a narrative set in the continuous present. Ashworth has the poet's power to make language, and therefore experience, seem new. The portrait of her spirited, beautiful, despairing, loving, neglectful mother is particularly moving. The girls become expert at reading the angry or lonely signals sent out by her cigarette smoke. But they love the sight and sound of her swishing to a Tamla Motown tune, building up to a night on the razzle, even if it does mean they will be alone all that night and the next morning.

The book ends as the violence at home reaches a frightening pitch. Lorraine spirals into despair after Terry has finally left: love filled a hole in her life of low-paid jobs and unrelenting responsibility. Andrea counts the days to her freedom, now a beautiful young woman with a place at Oxford. The difference between mother and daughter, wrought mainly by the possibilities of education, are now irreparable. I could almost hear the last sad but definite click of the door as Andrea sets off for university, clutching the pounds 5 note that her weeping mother stuffs into her hand at the last moment. For "it would be my first ride in a black cab, and she had her heart set on paying for it".