Stars in the dark nights of the soul

Michael is rare, in taking on the ethical gravity of evil, turning it o ver and over in her stony prose
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Their Angel Reach Livi Michael Secker & Warburg, £9.99

As with film-makers, there is a set of young British writers who see violence as tasty and sophisticated. Take Tim Willocks, whose debut novel, Green River Rising, oozed nastiness and spawned film rights of half a million dollars. He is photographed in Vogue this month, posed as nicely as any model. Will Self's last book, Grey Area, extends his reputation for wrenching physical effects, and has increased his trendiness to boot; while Iain Banks's last novel, Complicity, was as thick with violence as a Tarantino film. For such writers, the very stuff of violence becomes a motor of the novel, the baroque physical mess an end in itself.

Women do it, too, of course, though to a far lesser degree. Helen Zahavi, author of Dirty Weekend and True Romance, tends to be celebrated for the unlikely thuggery of her fictional world, not her naive prose style. Livi Michael is a young novelist from Lancashire whose first novel was both hailed and disregarded. Her second novel, Their Angel Reach, a series of stories about working-class women in a Lancashire village, is strikingly violent. But she cannot be classed in the same genre as the specialists in baroque effects. Spare, quite unnervingly convincing, this is not violence as decoration.

"Mick hit out at Lou. He must have hit her on the side of her head, she fell to the mattress without a sound. Immediately she tried to scramble up but this time Steve caught her and twisted her arm violently so that she fell back down again. This time s

h e did make a sound, a little whimpering gasp ... Karen felt her own attention grow to a point of absorbed concentration nothing could shake. Here in this room, now, they were making their own rules, nothing could stop them. Karen wanted to see. She felt the lure of what you were not supposed to see more powerfully than she had ever felt anything in her life."

As Naomi Wolf said in Fire with Fire, perhaps women need to examine the bad girl within themselves, if they are to get beyond their victimhood. I'm not sure that she meant we have to understand why women might stand passively by and watch a rape. But still, you don't feel that Livi Michael is doing this just for effect. She is embarking on a journey that she believes is desperately important. That journey is not reducible to a simple pattern.

This particular woman, Karen, once believed the thuggish crowd she hung out with added glamour to her grim life; but when she tries to escape from her biker boyfriend turned jealous husband, she realises there is no way out. She is implicated and innocent. Who isn't?

Michael's book opens with a quotation from The Tempest: "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine." It is a terrible thing to have to write about evil, but most who do seem to shrug off its moral weight. Michael is rare in taking on the ethical gravity,turning it over and over in her stony but oddly readable prose.

A linked story is set in a grim school, where sexual harassment by the boys has led a girl to commit suicide. It is the kind of scenario that might figure in the flashily nihilistic world of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, but here the resonances of guilt that echo among the girl's classmates are pursued coldly, slyly, from many angles, until we begin to understand the - inescapably banal - context from which such tragedy arises.

Michael handles violence in a unique way; she also has few equals in how she deals with poverty. As she said in an interview, poor people, especially women, make recalcitrant heroines. "It's difficult to write about people in a position of powerlessness.

A novel is so much geared towards what people do and what decisions they make but these are people who have all that taken away from them." The flavour is reminiscent of Roddy Doyle's world, but the Doyle of his bleak television series The Family rather than his exuberant novels. This is a world trammelled by lost giros, broken lifts, the close walls of tiny flats, the passivity of unemployment, the sorrow of broken families, a world that figures much more in government surveys than in good literature.

For some of us, it is a shock to meet these people in the passionate embrace of literature rather than in the cold corridors of journalism. As a young woman in Michael's first book, Under a Thin Moon, realised when looking through the gates of wealthy houses: "There is so much beauty in the gardens, in the buildings themselves. For a moment it hurts her that there is so much beauty. Her fingers curl tightly round the railings. She wonders if the people who live there have ever seen the council estate where she lives. It is close by, but they have probably never even seen it. They will not stand like Laurie looking in on it." The same, to a certain degree, goes for literature. But Michael manages to take us right inside the council estate, without making us feel like voyeurs.

Despite the deathly grey wallpaper of this background, this book sometimes opens a window on to joy. Rather like Raymond Carver, whose work Michael's resembles in many ways, she layers beauty and ugliness in random, honest ways. There are stars in these dark nights of the human soul; and we are prepared to wait for them.

One woman in Their Angel Reach really does seem to have nothing to live for. Fat, poor, in a dead-end job, friendless, uninterested in life, she eats for comfort - or walks, by night, on the hills around her house. "Night blurred the boundaries. There w

a s only the shaggy rolling moor, with the greater darkness of hills printed against the night sky, like silence itself taking shape ... Out here there was an infinity of things she couldn't name, insects beneath a stone, the skull of an unknown animal

Another woman, Rachel, lives from day to day in solid misery with her passive husband and horribly ill baby. One day she meets a traveller who is into New Age nonsense. She has nothing in common with him, but the encounter sparks an irrational, deliciou

s dream, desirable enough to impel her to leave her husband and run away with her baby to a new life. At the end of the tale she still has nothing but expectations: "She felt as if she were trapped inside her own dreams. The world turned and the sun roseon a misty day. Rachel stayed where she was, looking down the long road in the mysterious autumn light."

There are false notes in this book, the odd jammed emotion spilling into rancour, jotted dialogue that looks clumsy on the page. But all in all, this combination of harsh, scoured truth and the occasional leap into beauty is precious. What more can we ask for in our fiction writers than such honesty, such fierceness? And when the moments of joy arrive, they sing out, they can be trusted.

Mark Lawson is on holiday.

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