Story packs a punch;Books

17th April 1998 at 01:00
ONCE IN A HOUSE ON FIRE. By Andrea Ashworth. Picador pound;14.99

When Andrea Ashworth was five her father stopped to have a pee on his way home from work. He slipped, hit his head and drowned in four inches of water.

When she was six her mother re-married. The stepfather was alcoholic, repulsive, violent. Andrea and her sister soon learned to play without so much as a click of their lego bricks. They came to understand why their mother wore sunglasses even when it was raining and why she winced when their new baby sister touched her puffy, oddly-coloured face.

By the time Andrea was 11 they knew to hide the kitchen knives and to cover their little sister's ears as they clung together at night. They sat silent on livid, stinging backsides and queued obediently for a bristly kiss.

The language of this tale of battering and neglect is extraordinarily observant and precise. "Our stepfather drew back his hand and brought it slamming into her cheek. The skin gave a quick shout then turned a deep, slow red, but our mother's face stood still." This memory in slow-motion brilliantly conveys the transfixed helplessness of the children.

It is also eloquent of this child's precocious awareness of body surfaces. In Once in a House on Fire faces need to be as manipulable as masks and eyes are safest "shuttered".

Her survival skill in reading threatening situations and adjusting accordingly stood Andrea in good stead on her arrival at her Manchester secondary school. She was late, her uniform was obviously thrift-shop and her accent wrong. She was skinny, brainy and, most dangerously of all, brown. "My mother laughed and called us fingers of fudge. Strangers in the street called us wogs."

Surrounded by "porridgey-faced kids" who bullied her, she coped magnificently. "I roughed up my 'o's, yanked my 'a's flat and stretched my 'i's as wide as they would go. Ripping the bottom out of my 'u's, I uttered everything from my guts. 'I'm from flippin' Rusholme, I am.' " No wonder she found French "a cinch compared with the languages you had to slip into the second the bell rang for break".

Her relationship with words was crucial for her survival through the second of her mother's disastrous marriages. NewDad2 arrived in an old gold Jaguar when Andrea was 12. He was funny, lovable, dishonest and, finally, paranoically violent. The control that gives the first half of the book its saving characteristics of wit and detachment seems harder to maintain here. There are moments - such as those when he turns on the protected little sister - when it becomes almost too painful to read.

The damage spread inexorably from the physical to the psychological. "When they did break into talk it was in low murmurs, listing the ways - crude, quick, luxurious, artistic - that they planned to do one another in."

The second sister took refuge in a hostel, the little sister stuck safety pins into her arms, even the budgie squawked and shuddered and pecked the feathers out of its breast. Andrea "lacerated" herself with poetry and won a place at Oxford. She is now 28 and a junior research fellow at Jesus College. The linguistic quality of this book explains why.

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