The young male characters in Matt Thorne's novels (usually socially inept journeymen with a decent line in bemused humour) tend to owe a great deal to women. Dan, the protagonist of Eight Minutes Idle (1999), is rescued from penury and homelessness by his female boss; Chris, in Dreaming of Strangers (2000), finds happiness with his landlady; Gerald, the heartbroken narrator of Child Star (2003), turns to an old friend for a maternal shoulder to cry on.
Given Thorne's seemingly high regard for the opposite sex, it is appropriate that his latest novel, Cherry (longlisted for this year's Booker Prize), should unveil the Perfect Woman. Steve Ellis is a 33-year-old teacher who lives in "a dangerous borough of London". Shiftless, gauche and with a lifelong "deep soul-sickness", Steve appears to have only bachelorhood ahead of him. Then, one evening in a bar, he meets a man named Harry Hollings-worth. Their conversation continues back at Steve's flat, and ends with Steve lending Harry an old home video. Apparently touched by this, Harry sends his laconic envoy, Soumenda, to visit Steve a few days later. Steve learns that he is to be presented with the woman of his dreams.
Although understandably taken aback, Steve provides Soumenda with the necessary details. His perfect woman would be a voluptuous, dark-haired, blue-eyed teacher; her name would be Cherry. To Steve's amazement, Cherry shows up a few weeks later, and is everything that he requested. He and Cherry start to live and work together. They fall in love.
But then odd things start to happen. Cherry's toenails turn black and drop off. She suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhoea, haemorrhoids and hair loss. She insists that she is fine, but when she starts vomiting black liquid, Steve knows that he must get help. Cherry, who by now exerts a controlling influence over him, reluctantly agrees, but insists that they turn to her mother, Sandra. The plot from here on is a mixture of noirish thriller and Borgesian fantasy. There are frequent references to the Bible and religion: Harry, with his powers of creation and destruction, is a godlike figure; Cherry wears a crucifix, teaches religious studies, and is fanatical about Christmas; Steve's age is the same as that of Jesus when he died; and there is the forbidden-fruit connotation of Cherry's name.
Cherry is let down by the prose, which can be prolix, awkward and cliched. Consider, for example, the following sentence: "The reason why neither the conventional love story or the hard-core pornographic movie completely satisfies is because the division of the natural pairing . . . has made each separate part seem strange." Quite apart from the grammatical blunders ("neither . . . or"; "the reason why . . . is because"), this assumes too much of the reader, who may, after all, find both conventional love stories and hard-core porn satisfying. On the next page, Steve tells us: "It's actually hard, and almost always horrifying, to imagine people we know in bed together." Again, this is one person's whim dressed up as a universal truth.
The novel is partly redeemed by its exciting (if outlandish) plot, and Steve's exuberance as a narrator. Although hardly a great literary achievement, Cherry is definitely one of Thorne's better novels. It might also make a good film - something Steve acknowledges: "Sometimes I imagine the Hollywood version of my story." No doubt Matt Thorne does, too.