Books: Independent choice: First novels

Like Ted Hughes's hawk, the eponymous hero of Mark Fyfe's Asher (Marion Boyars, pounds 11.95) has no sophistry in his body and his manners are tearing off heads. Asher is a ruthlessly intelligent, sex and drugs-driven 18-year-old. He has no humanity - or thinks he hasn't. He coldly manipulates everyone he knows. "The disposability of life" is his dismissive phrase. His charm, skilfully simulated as a means to various ends, is all the more chilling because we are privy to its falsity. The calculated seduction of Jenny is as foul as anything in Les Liaisons Dangerouses; the killing fantasies are very nasty.

And yet there's an Achilles's heel. Asher is haunted by the querulous voice of his dying father who may have died because Asher's amorality has denied the older man life-saving medication. It is Asher's inability to distinguish real life from fantasy and extraordinary sexual encounters with his mother which eventually evoke guarded sympathy for this monster. The prose vibrates with a sharp elegance which mirrors Asher's hawk-like single-mindedness.

Rachel King's Alba (Anchor, pounds 9.99) is equally disturbing and original, but the writing glitters less and warms more: as in the lyrical beauty of hairspray glistening like spun sugar threads, or a ghoulish cottage in the wood shining like a candle-lit pumpkin. Alba is a single, albino school teacher who lives with a domineering mother. On several levels, she is trapped.

Dutch, another outsider, of whom no one approves, lives close to "nature" in primitive squalor (or simpicity?) and symbolic freedom. He owes something to Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover. Alba's magnetic lover, formerly a colleague but now a nature-reserve warden, has been cast out of teaching by the headmaster, using trumped-up allegations of sexual irregularities and designs on pupils.

The tender, painful eroticism in Alba underlies all the surface conventions of its characters. As its heroine moves to centre-stage, within an old- fashioned triangular sexual tussle, the narrative is darkly compelling. The headmaster Kirkwood is, in some ways, as amoral as Asher. He wants to possess and despoil Alba's whiteness. Dutch, on the other hand, wants to set her free - and that's the central tension in this most enjoyable novel.

I am wont to tell my EngLit students that, however dubious the merits of a novel, its background will always enhance your general knowledge. Baby Love (Flamingo, pounds 12.99) by Louisa Young teaches you thoroughly about belly dancing - its origin, functions and sociology. Evangeline is an Oxford-educated former dancer turned belly-dancing consultant, designer and choreographer. She's also a single parent. But the child is not hers. Lily, now three, was born by Caesarean section from the dying body of Evangeline's sister Janie after a motor-cycle accident. The dead Janie is a sort of alter ego for Evangeline as her sister's colourful past gradually unfolds.

There's a lot of implausible Tom Sharpe-esque hilarity (drugging, kidnapping, unlikely sexual shenanigans), but also some quite serious writing as Evangeline copes with the prospect of losing custody of Lily. Yet this certainly isn't sensible enough to be read as a novel of ideas; so it left this reader, for one, feeling disorientated.

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