Friday's book; Ghost Children By Sue Townsend (Methuen, pounds 12.99)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Halfway through Sue Townsend's new novel, one of her main characters thinks: "It isn't money that makes the world go round, it's lies". Nearly everyone in this gripping and disturbing book is living a lie. Angela is having an illicit affair with the ex-boyfriend whose baby she aborted 18 years ago. Gregory, her husband, runs a linen shop and pretends to himself that he is happy. Tamara and Crackle, a young couple in a council flat, think that they are parents - but their baby daughter is filthy and abused and ends up on an operating table having her spleen removed after Crackle has given her one of his "big licks".

Grim, yes. It is also utterly absorbing. Townsend's prose is plain, clear, full of dialogue and direct action. There is occasional clumsiness, but the emotional clarity and honesty is so obvious that you easily forgive the odd stylistic trip-up.

Christopher is a long-term-unemployed bachelor hiding in a house full of old books with a Staffordshire bulldog for company. The novel begins with his discovery of a bag of aborted foetuses dumped in a ditch by a driver too lazy to go to the incinerator. This shocking event sends him on a bleak urban odyssey to track down his long-lost love, the unhappily married Angela. The abortion which ended their relationship haunts them both. When they encounter the hopeless, abusive Crackle and Tamara, it seems that their unhappy childlessness might be resolved.

A lesser writer might have tied up the loose ends too neatly, but Townsend offers the readers no easy resolution. Angela and Christopher are sympathetic protagonists, but nobody's motives are pure: she fantasises about the daughter she might have raised but her reasons for having had the abortion are horribly logical. His desire to nurture a child verges on psychosis.

In common with novelists such as Nell Dunn and Deborah Moggach, Townsend paints a contemporary landscape with utter conviction. When we first meet Angela, she is freezing at a bus-stop, watching "with impotent fury" as her husband drives past without seeing her. Their whole marriage is encapsulated in that one small incident. Townsend's unadorned prose masks a psychologically complex novel of almost painful subtlety.

Louise Doughty