Self-assured exploration of day-to-day family trauma, and then some.
In most ways, the Riggs family is completely ordinary, even boring. The family is composed of two devoted parents, the requisite smart-aleck son and two daughters who squabble their way from childhood to adolescence. The one anomaly is that the oldest daughter is an albino, a condition that affects everyone in the family. The novel is focused mainly on daughters Glynnis and Carol, and it traces the standard fare: childhood traumas; the Byzantine social codes of adolescent girls; unpredictable sexual desires; the comforting and smothering nature of family life. Fleming’s adherence to the rules of the coming-of-age family drama makes her clever riffs on the genre all the more potent. For example, in one of the most important childhood events, Carol, frustrated at the social exclusion she experiences because she is an albino, pushes a piano on her younger sister Glynnis, permanently disabling her. Fleming’s unabashed reliance on such extravagantly over-the-top events threatens to undermine the story, turning it into mere parody, but her gift at characterization anchors the novel and proves utterly compelling while being heavily plotted—the girls are constantly negotiating the landmines of adolescence—but character-driven all the same. Particularly noteworthy are the minor characters: Beryl Balls, the former war nurse who devotes herself to making girls self-reliant in the Girl Guides, and who cherishes an unconsummated and unrecognized romance with another nurse killed in the war; Tracy Novak, the cool lesbian with whom Glynnis falls in love at school; Grunt, Carol’s misfit, stuttering, wannabe punk boyfriend. Fleming treads a fine line between describing scenes of social trauma so pitch perfect readers will squirm in their chairs and moments of transcendence during which characters see the possibility of happiness and human connection.
Fleming’s ability to fully inhabit the consciousness of her characters is flawless, as are her portraits of the ordinary and extraordinary life of adolescent girls.