The woman who was Lulu


FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews Mountains of the MoonBy IJ Kay Jonathan Cape, 351pp. £16.99

KIM HUNTER, Beverley Woods, Jackie Birch, Dawn Redwood, Catherine Clark. It is quite a list of names, and not at all as random as it might at first seem. At one time or another the narrator of this black, savage, persuasively wonderful British debut novel admits to having used them all. But for us, the readers, she is Kim in the present and Lulu in the past. Most of all she is everyone who has been lost, betrayed and left to make sense of the way cruel things happen and the messes that remain – not to mention the scars.

As the narrative opens, Kim is obviously grown up but as raw as a newborn. She has just been released from prison and is assessing her new accommodation, a grim flat in a former vicarage that has been taken over by social housing. Kim’s experience of freedom has been limited by the nonarrival of her giro; she has no money with which to feed the electricity meter.

The flat is gloomy because a big tree blocks most of the natural light. But Kim admires the towering lime and notes that “the vivid soft leaves press against the glass: backlit, they seem surreal like stained glass”. Such a simple observation, yet it proves extraordinarily effective in establishing Kim as a unique character: here is an individual, a victim, a survivor with a naturally artistic response that never becomes arch or cloying.

Kay, the author, about whom little is known, has created a narrative voice that is compelling, sympathetic and always interesting. Kim is the woman who was once Lulu, an abused child caught up in a destructive war between her parents. Her mother is unstable, her father a thug quick with his fists. Lulu inhabits her imagination: it is her only refuge. She also becomes immersed in a book about Africa given to her by an adored grandfather. Lulu dreams of becoming a Masai warrior. It makes sense: she is very tall and has always had to fight.

Her childhood is dominated by her mother’s mood swings and ongoing lamentations about a stage career she may or may not have had. When not screaming at Lulu, the mother sings snatches of songs from musicals and thrives on making scenes. On the rare occasions when Lulu does get to school there is always the threat that Mother will sweep in and call a halt to class. Lulu writes a continuous story that impresses her teacher. She also has speech difficulties that continue to affect the adult Kim, whose thoughts are never far from her childhood self.

The story is dramatic, full of incident, yet neither – at least superficially – therapeutic or confessional. Kim proves an open-eyed narrator; she reacts yet is also passive. Early in the narrative, a suspicion is planted that she did not commit the crime that cost her a decade in prison.

There is nothing defiant about her, and Kay ensures not only that Kim is likeable and sympathetic but also that there is a wry humour about her book that makes one smile. The adult Kim is attempting not so much to build a new life as to escape from the old one. Lulu endures several horrible experiences, but her older self – the Kim who sets off for Africa – is presented more as a parallel character than as an extension of the damaged child. There is no self-pity, and the narrative tone is calm and detached.

The restraint is just one of the many surprises contained within this singular, vividly resonant novel whose humanity will thrill, delight and engage readers. Kay writes with clarity and ease; the sheer lucidity is irresistible. Vivid sequences from the past continually force themselves against her narrator’s eye. It’s a sensation that many writers strive to convey: Kay has succeeded in doing this fluidly throughout the book while all the time creating a strong and wholly convincing sense of Kim’s day-to-day life in the immediate present.

There is nothing conventional about it, yet there are no tricks, no short cuts. The dialogue and characterisation are assured throughout. A number of well-executed set pieces also establish the small cast of minor characters, particularly the appalling Gwen, who introduces herself as a private investigator sufficiently dedicated to her job that she moves her dog and her horse around England with her. It then transpires that her quarry is her ex-boyfriend.

When Kim, having adopted a Lawrence of Arabia style of dress (and why not?), is struggling up a mountain in Africa and realises, “I’ve been in training for this all my life but I had to keep stopping to empty my soul”, it rings true on many levels. Few 350-page, first-person novels – even fewer contemporary British novels – are unputdownable. This is one of them.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times