Parma violets and fishy nylons

The Touch by Julie Myerson Picador, pounds 12.99
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I know a woman in her seventies who has finally given up reading contemporary literary fiction by women - particularly young ones. She's not narrow-minded, nor unfamiliar with or unmoved by suffering. She just says she can't take the nastiness any more. "I don't enjoy it, and I'm sure it doesn't make me a better person.''

If this is an attitude that comes with age, then reading The Touch must have aged me by about 50 years. The scene (contemporary south London) and tone (sharp as a scalpal, dirty as a used dressing), are set in the first paragraphs: Frank, a squalid, raving and clearly dangerous street preacher lies covered in blood on Clapham Common, waiting to be discovered by a group of Sunday afternoon strollers. Here are the novel's main characters. Two adult sisters - Donna, bright and beautiful but half crippled, and Gayle, a nurse, who, as a single mother, is never without her three-year- old daughter Kitty; and Donna's boyfriend, the sulky Will, who is hostile towards his sister-in-law and works in advertising. Gayle calls an ambulance which takes Frank to the hospital where she works. Later, drawn by his mysteriously knowing Donna's name and his claim to be able to heal her, Gayle and Will start to visit him in the squalor of his own home.

Donna is desperate for a child. Recently she miscarried: "Will tried to stop her seeing the pale mass which was clearly the foetus - a terrible shadowy human shape on the wad of lavatory paper - but she made sure she drank it in, locked the picture in her memory before he flushed it down.'' Frank lays on hands, and Donna is well again, fit to conceive and bear a child. But she refuses to give thanks to Frank or his God. Gayle and Will acknowledge a debt to Frank, while refuting his garbled religiosities and the repellence of what he is and says.

Often, when you ask people why they didn't like a novel, they say, "Oh, I just didn't warm to any of the characters'' - which always seems a little on the critically floppy side. But The Touch made you want to take refuge in precisely this kind of reprehensible subjectivism. Take this portrait of a minor character, for instance, one that made me want to throw my hat up in the air and be sick into it all at once. "A diabetic from Worksop, Miss F. worked all her life in a chocolate factory - harsh phlegmy breath, cheeks furred and rouged like old cinema seats. Her breath a mix of gases: onions and parma violets. She clings hard as Frank tries to push her off, hitching up her skirt, revealing a tang of fishy nylons and much more.''

Myerson uses words with a kind of redemptive grace which achieves a sublime transfiguration of the hideousness of it all. A boy's skin is "so white you could detect the workings of his body, the schemings of his heart beneath''; she notices the way shattered windscreens leave "pale blue crumbs of glass heaped on the pavement'', and comments on the biro mark on a dead boy's thumb, or a watch left ticking in a shoe on the beach. Her sentences are so funny and spare you feel stung and winded after just a few pages. The lyricism is what you'd expect of a songwriter more than of a novelist. The images and observations leave lasting physical impressions on your nerves. Her reputation is terrific, and she completely deserves it. I just think, next time, maybe I'll take it as read.