Lucy Ellmann's new novel grapples with the ills of the world. Susie Boyt is dazzled
Man or Mango

by Lucy Ellmann

Review, pounds 14.99

Lucy Ellmann's third novel is an anarchic lament of such scope and intensity that it has an almost vertiginous quality to it. As a study in the humiliation and squalor that can accompany extreme grief it also boasts dazzling jokes and a sphere of reference that takes the reader from junior favourites Ant and Bee to horrific documents of the Holocaust.

Ellmann's heroine is Eloise, a woman crushed by the shortfall between what she desires from the world and what it has to offer her. Convinced from childhood that she is too clingy, too loathsome, too much, she "from the age of five suspected she wanted more sex than she would ever get". Sex occupies a revered place in Ellmann's writing: in her earlier novels it sometimes seems to take the place of an actual hero.

Following her father's death Eloise moves into the cottage she inherits. With her cats, her cello and pricy frozen dinners, she lives in isolation, quietly turning dread into an art. By day she composes lists of things that terrify her, such as meeting a villager or having to make a phone call. Eloise's lists are an attempt to put some order in her life, but also a signal of its disarray, like the wild letters Herzog writes in Saul Bellow's novel. Eloise writes wild letters too; letters of complaint to judges, and chain stores. By night, she longs for her former lover George who abandoned her. Most of all she longs for her dead parents.

Eloise's strange world is peopled by all sorts of struggling misfits. There is Ed, who makes obscene phone calls, the Three Old Biddies who indulge in wild shoplifting sprees, Eloise's incontinent grandmother and Owen, a young widower with an inconsolable little girl. These minor characters and the multitude of other texts - songs, cuttings, Hardy poems, lists of wild life, statistics about national disasters - that Ellmann includes, are oddly touching, as if her heroine, forsaken by everyone, has a corresponding desire to involve as many disparate voices in her story as possible.

At times I found Ellmann's elaborate railing against men hard to swallow. The 16-point list cataloguing "How everything wrong with the world is men's fault" seemed banal to me. But Ellmann's writing is of such a high calibre, the flashes of humour and understanding so brilliant that the book finally produces a quite different sensation: one of pleasure.