Bitter sweet

The Great Ideas

Suzanne Cleminshaw <em>Fourth Estate, 312pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 1857029089

It takes courage to call your first novel The Great Ideas and even more to write it as a comic pastiche of postmodernism. Suzanne Cleminshaw, whose self-assured debut pulls off both these feats, is obviously a writer of ambition.

Set in 1972 Ohio, it's not so much a novel of ideas as one of inquiry. Smart-talking but confused, Haddie is spending the summer in the company of her Buddhist grandmother, a wise-cracking cleaning lady, and her charming but crazy companion, Louis. Now the same age as the dead sister whose name she shares, Haddie takes the opportunity of her parents' absence to discover just what happened to her namesake, through a series of investigations, wild conjectures and persistent questioning of those around her. In so doing she discovers the source of one tragedy and sets off another (with due acknowledgement to the Greeks).

As Haddie works through the family drama, she also works through the first book of Encyclopaedia Britannica, having decided that she "likes accumulating facts", and takes notes on philosophy (the book is divided into four sections - the ancient, classical, medieval and modern ages). In addition she compiles lists - an idea she has copied from Japanese pillow books - and gives accounts of her charm-school classes and extracts from etiquette books. Cleminshaw helpfully provides an index.

All of this would be enough to make one's heart sink (and I admit to a certain tremor when I reached the mandatory paragraph on physics) if it weren't for Cleminshaw's exuberant sense of fun. How many millions of middle-class teenagers have kept a notebook of favourite poems, aphorisms and observations? And what better way to dispense with a tired literary genre than to identify it so conclusively with adolescence? Haddie's lists themselves are drily comic; they include interesting sensations ("the sensation . . . of saying a big word when you're unsure of its meaning"), glamorous deaths and enviable animal attributes. To complete the picture there are hints on how to levitate, spot a communist, fight a bull and be a martyr.

The narrative itself contains gloriously funny scenes, mainly concerning the maddening Louis. And there are memorable sentences: Cleminshaw notes "smiles like flat ginger ale" at a party; Louis's throat is "long and pale and thin. Perfect for strangling."

It is in the narrative, however, that the author's ambition fails. Examining the idea of the quest, types of immortality and the question of identity, she draws interesting parallels between various characters' experience. But the central drive of the novel - the mysteries surrounding Haddie's sister and Louis's parentage - aren't really mysteries at all. In spite of some half-hearted attempts at obfuscation (and Haddie's endless and inaccurate scenarios), the solutions to both are obvious from very early on. Similarly, although one approaches the conclusion nervous as to quite what deus ex machina will engineer the horrible outcome, one can't escape the feeling that it has been too long a wait.

Pastiche itself also presents Cleminshaw with some problems. Haddie comes dangerously close to provoking irritation with her various musings on what one thinks as one falls and what it feels like to forget, and her whimsy is often grating. For the most part, however, her creator's comic nerve holds strong enough to make this a clever, touching first novel.