Novel of the week

Jack

A M Homes <em>Anchor, £6.99</em>

When The End of Alice was published in 1997, A M Homes crossed over from the books pages into the news. Narrated by a male paedophile, the novel tapped into national anxiety about child sexual abuse. At least one child welfare organisation called for it to be banned. Some shops, while stocking the title, chose not to display it on the shelves.

Homes's publishers have now delved into her backlist to bring us her debut novel, Jack, and her short-story collection, The Safety of Objects (Anchor, £6.99). First published in America in 1989 and 1990 respectively, these are inevitably the products of a less mature writer - admirers of Homes's work in The End of Alice will find Jack, especially, something of a disappointment. They are interesting, however, for what they reveal of her development, and the light they shine on criticisms of The End of Alice.

The eponymous narrator of Jack is a 15-year-old boy in middle-class America whose life is up-ended when his father comes out as gay. There are many moments of real humour but, on the whole, Jack is a pedestrian read, the characterisation and resolution largely predictable. But there are undercurrents. A frisson arises between Jack and Mrs Burka, the mother of his best friend. Bed-bound with a serious injury, doped by painkillers, Jack is watched over by Mrs Burka while his mother is out. The innocent act of soothing an unwell adolescent is imbued with erotic charge: "She ran her hand down my arm . . . Her nails half scratched, half tickled me . . . there was something incredible about it. If she hadn't been Mrs Burka . . . I would have asked her . . . to do it to my whole body, for hours on end." The dice thus loaded are never rolled, but Homes establishes themes to which she will later return: transgressive sexual attraction, and the often thin line separating the everyday from the forbidden.

The Safety of Objects is markedly more vigorous than Jack, with Homes honing a distinctive voice. Most of the stories are concerned with the ease with which lines can be crossed. Arbitrary incidents and the momentary giving in to temptation lead her characters into uncharted territory from which there is no return to the previous norms of life.

In one sense, Homes's writing in The Safety of Objects seems liberated by the opportunity to explore the unpalatable, the unacceptable. An obese American teenager masturbates in the back garden, abandoned to the gaze of her neighbours. Pre-pubescent bodily exploration becomes disquietingly sexual when a naked girl and boy on a sleep-over are surprised by male burglars. Yet there is also the feeling that Homes is in thrall to the monsters she creates. Too often the stories are simply about transgression; the characters are essentially static, there is at best only timid pursuit of the way their experiences change them. The title, The Safety of Objects, implies the dangerous unpredictability of human beings. Ironically, it also reflects a reticence on the part of Homes fully to submerge herself in character and consequence, although this may, in part, be a function of the short form.

The most bizarre story in the collection, "A Real Doll", is also the most interesting. A teenage boy has an affair with his sister's Barbie, who talks and interacts with him alone. Homes has surreal fun with the situation, but also touches on disturbing themes: the boy has complete control over Barbie and subjects her to degrading sex acts and cruelty on a whim. Being a "real doll", Barbie accepts these abuses uncomplainingly; they are her normality. She craves them, goading the boy to new depths - her function is to give pleasure, to be played with in whatever way others deem fit.

What if a child character is substituted for Barbie? This, in effect, is what Homes does in The End of Alice. The unnamed paedophile who narrates the novel is, in my view, a noteworthy fictional creation: by turns sympathetic and deeply repellent. Homes is confident in her handling of him, burrowing into her troubling creation. Yet, crucially, this engagement with character is not mirrored in her portrayal of 12-year-old Alice. The Alice of the novel is, in every respect, an authentic paedophile fantasy: initiating, enjoying, granting guilt-free indulgence. A real doll. She is as far from the reality of an abused child as is possible. Given that we see her through the eyes of her abuser, this is perhaps fictionally justified. But if Homes makes any error of judgement in The End of Alice, it is in failing to provide, within the text, any alternative view of Alice. She does attempt this in places, but it is insufficient to show Alice as a real child, grotesquely damaged - again, profound transgression has few felt consequences.

Homes's writing is provocative and courageous, and shows, in these early works, expanding confidence matched by talent. Perhaps the next challenge is to give someone like Alice a voice - she deserves one, and Homes has the ability to bring her to life.