Julia Darling's enchanting second novel is the tale of an unhappy family in working-class Newcastle. Mac, the taxi driver, is unable to connect with his depressive wife, or to control his adolescent daughters, Caris and Stella - one a truant and thief, the other a dustpan-wielding obsessive-compulsive. After the girls' mother is imprisoned for shoplifting a single stiletto, the family falls apart.
Stella seeks refuge in homework and housework (she's so compulsive that she vacuum-cleans the dust-filled air). Mac fantasises about one of his regular customers. And after two bullies toss her school shoes into a tree, Caris begins to fill its branches with footwear. She uses anything she can find - shoes stolen from the bullies, shoes that her rich and unsavoury boyfriend filches from his mother's closet, even old shoes from charity shops. But Caris also seeks less innocent diversions: she and George smoke pot, skip school and nonchalantly break into a house. Meanwhile, Mac dreams of divorce and Stella's hands grow raw from too much washing.
The Taxi Driver's Daughter is a better book than Darling's first novel, Crocodile Soup, the surreal story of a loveless woman meditating on her unhappy childhood. Darling sheds her sequinned style, and all that remains of her surrealism is the shoe tree. She still allows herself the odd lyrical image (a broken heel hangs "like a child's milk tooth"), but her writing is less showy. Poetry is no longer Darling's priority. Her prose is looser and more accommodating, and her characters are more complicated.
The protagonists are often violently irritated by one another: Stella finds her younger sister so annoying that she would like to "knock her unconscious" with the washing-up brush; Mac wishes, for a moment, that his daughters had never been born; and in displaced anger, Caris viciously wrecks a house she has broken into. The dialogue, full of clipped sentences and one-word answers, perfectly reflects their alienation. They can hardly bear to talk to one another.
Yet we pity them because we understand their frustrations: the middle-aged man who can no longer understand his adolescent daughters; the adolescent who feels as cramped at home as "a young horse tied up in a stable, kicking at the walls". Thwarted longing fills the book, in which even bit players nurse broken dreams.
But in the end, frustration does not flare up into disaster. Caris revolts against her psychopathic boyfriend, Mac realises that he still loves his wife, and affection blooms in Stella's pruned heart, as she wishes on the shoe tree that her family will come home.
Darling manages to avoid sentimentality in part because the family's transformation is incomplete. In a pivotal scene, the news that Caris has had an accident means that "All the anger drains away . . . leaving only a raw mess of love". The convention of the family united around the hospital bed is a soapy one, but Darling saves the scene with that phrase "raw mess", reminding us that love, even in its resurgence, is often painful and difficult to express.
Darling's second novel is both good and feel-good, and if her prose sparkles a little less than in her first, she demonstrates that sometimes it is necessary to write less beautifully in order to write better.