Shaking things up

Electricity

Ray Robinson <em>Picador, 320pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0330444506

Since its inception, modern British literature has steadily expanded its vocal range. Heterosexual middle-class white man has been forced to share the stage with women, the working classes, homosexuals and immigrants. Now they have been joined by another type of outsider. First we had Chris-topher Boone, the autistic hero of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And now, with Ray Robinson's accomplished first novel, we have Lily O'Conor, a six-foot epileptic from Blackpool who uses "fuck" as punctuation.

Although Christopher was emotion-ally stunted, his inadvertent wittiness and honesty made him instantly ador-able. Lily, by contrast, is a battle-weary woman of the underclass whose hard life is reflected in Robinson's abrasive, aggressive prose; it takes her time to earn the reader's affection. Following the death of her despised mother, Lily is reunited with her brother Barry, a bejewelled professional poker player and drug-addled ne'er-do-well. Meeting Barry dredges up memories of her other brother, Mikey, also due his share of their mother's estate, and she sets off for London in search of him.

The plot is incidental, however: the novel rests - and sometimes falls down - on Robinson's ability to recreate the experience of a mental disorder that he has never endured and on his success in inhabiting the voice of a poorly educated woman. Commendably, he just about deals with the problem of any novel written from the perspective of the inarticulate: the often contradictory need for both verisimilitude and readability. Lines such as "I've just got to put up with the broken ribs and the black eyes. Like being married to some psycho I can't ever divorce" represent a perfect union of authenticity and artistry. However, at other times the reader has to endure sentences such as "It had a sign saying British Library and next to the British Library was a big white building with a blue Novotel sign on" - which may be authentic, but is also awful.

As for his ability to recreate epilepsy, Robinson, like Haddon, succeeds when he trusts his own writing and fails when he doesn't. Whole pages of Electricity are devoted to gibberish in staggered typography. This represents a failure of the imagination. A more confident writer would have relied on his skill with the sentence, rather than on gimmickry. Robinson surely knows this, because he is capable of wonders such as: "She looks at me and we smile and the bolt, it snaps my hand away like fire and the planet tilts, burnt wind blowing around inside me, skin suck-sucking the dust in and the crackles, the coughing." A sentence such as this is far more affecting than a whole book of letters piled on top of each other.

But creating a voice is only part of the challenge. It is the steady and unfussy manner in which Robinson expands on the metaphorical possibilities of epilepsy that convinces the reader of the artis- try of Electricity. In Robinson's hands, Lily's battle with her condition becomes emblematic of every battle against circumstance, as does her dogged refusal to be defined by it.

Like many of her female literary forebears, Lily vacillates between determinist surrender and wilful protest. In doing so, she wins the reader over.