BOOK REVIEW / The writer's block: 'Peerless Flats' - Esther Freud: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99 pounds

Mick Imlah
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:48

ESTHER FREUD spent two years of her childhood touring Morocco with her hippy mother and elder sister. Hideous Kinky, a first novel of rare charm, presented life on the road in Morocco with a hippy mother through the eyes of a five-year-old girl. All that made it fiction was the innocent narrative and the device by which the child narrator remained anonymous.

It is effectively the same family, 11 years on, that now appears in Peerless Flats, though Bea has become 'Ruby' and Mum 'Marguerite', and a boisterous little brother has come along, called Max. As a further gesture to fiction, the 16-year-old heroine is done in the third person and called Lisa. But the treatment is again wholly subjective, as suggested by the fact that 276 paragraphs - about a third of the total - begin with Lisa's name. She is studying drama at a college in King's Cross in the late 1970s, as Esther Freud did. With writing as close to fact as this, when her adolescence turns out a less good book than her childhood it's hardly the author's fault.

Peerless Flats trades the open square of Marrakesh for a one-room apartment in the dreary block of the title. Its precise catalogue of food and drink and clothes and shoes is correspondingly a greyer one. Lisa's only taste of the south comes in small packets of drugs - Lebanese this, Moroccan that - an outlet which lands her sister in hospital, first with hepatitis, then to cure her heroin addiction. Ruby's illness is the closest thing to a main storyline in the novel, which is constructed rather to thwart our appetite, and Lisa's, for a big event.

There are nice humorous sketches of a housing co-operative meeting, of acting classes, of botched encounters with uncaring boys. But though Lisa's anxious checking-off of 'every drug she had heard of' makes her feel 'free to begin her own life', this life refuses to come into being; her experience is all expectation. She plans a New Year's Eve party, but only gets round to inviting one guest and spends the evening in the lonely delusion that 'something fantastic was about to happen'.

It still hasn't happened by the time the novel closes with removal from Peerless Flats. For their new home, Lisa and Marguerite plump again for temporary accommodation, which suits the proportions of Lisa's anticipation and Esther Freud's novels alike. As Lisa says: 'Anything can happen in a year and a half' - and even if it doesn't, there sounds like another book in it.

Though the prose has plenty of what were called in Hideous Kinky 'small victorious phrases', it may be too flat and light for the load of non-event it has to carry. Time scales are occasionally scrambled ('Steen had come round on New Year's Day . . . Lisa became so thin that her periods stopped') and a horse race set-piece outstrips the writer's resources (the winner 'flew like a leopard towards the finish' with a 'long stretched neck').

But while the novel does without structural or stylistic interest, it gets itself past the post by the sheer pleasing vigour of its personality. In this respect, the nervous fixations of the adolescents are usefully augmented by the presence of Max, who provides an unstoppable violent background crackle of nonsense about foxes and who confirms Esther Freud as a creator of memorable characters under six.

(Photograph omitted)

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