Beauty, By Raphael Selbourne

Reviewed,William Palmer
Thursday 10 September 2009 00:00 BST

Poor Beauty Begum is having a pretty hard time. Married at 14 to a 45-year-old mullah in Bangladesh, she has escaped by feigning madness and finds herself, aged 20, in disgrace at her parents' home in Wolverhampton. She is bullied by her brother Faisal and nagged by her parents, all under the tyranny of Dulal, her elder brother.

Beauty is fearful of a world that seems composed of lecherous Sikhs, black pimps, and the filthy and mad English. The only place she has been to is the Jobcentre, and in order to claim benefits the illiterate Begum must attend a course at an agency called RiteSkills. RiteSkills is caught with cruel comic precision in Raphael Selbourne's novel. The co-ordinator, Colin, solemnly informs his class that he needs the information on the forms they endlessly fill in "to cascade it back up to the Jobcentre so they can interpretate it".

At RiteSkills Beauty first meets Mark Aston, a young man out of prison and smelling evilly of unwashed clothes, dogs (he breeds bull terriers), alcohol and tobacco. Mark's chief pursuits are drinking and dope, but he becomes Beauty's unlikely saviour. Beaten by her brothers and threatened with return to Bangladesh, she leaves home after hiding out in a Somali brothel, and winds up renting a room in Mark's dog-ridden house.

The two become genuinely fond of one another without becoming sexually involved. He begins to clean up his house and his act; she gets over her revulsion to his dogs, which protect her when her brothers come calling. Two other main characters sometimes seem a little redundant. Peter Hemmings, a middle-class neighbour befriended by Mark, spends his spare time watching internet porn, or fending off phone calls from his girlfriend.

Selbourne writes convincingly both of Beauty's Bengali household and Mark's working-class world of casual sex, pubs and hard manual labour. Grim and threatening, this first novel is also occasionally very funny.

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