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by Angelina Archer


Any eighteen-year-old with the confidence and drive to complete a full-length novel and publish it herself has my utmost admiration. This would be the case even if the work itself were unreadable. In the case of Angelina Archer's first novel, the content deserves respect.

I have to speculate as to why Miss Archer should have been drawn to self-publication. At her age, she can't possibly have spent years going the rounds of publishers and agents, so we must assume that she preferred, for one reason or another, to go it alone. This may not have been the wisest course for one so young. Without wishing to patronise, I feel she could have benefited from greater editorial assistance and the services of a professional cover designer. There is nothing specifically wrong with using an amateur sketch as the basis of a cover design, but the selection of colours and typefaces can go a long way to throw the casual browser off the scent of a self-published novel. This particular cover is doomed to stand out on bookshop shelves for all the wrong reasons. It's a pity, because what's inside is definitely worth a look.

Part of the book's charm lies, undeniably, in its very innocence and quirkiness. If an editor had been present, to do what editors do, or if a commercial publisher had adopted Miss Archer and forced her down a more conformist path, her style would be smoother and less disconcerting; but the process might involve the loss of some of her youthful individuality. This is perhaps what she was trying to avoid when she decided to publish her own work. Most unusually for a modern novel, this one includes a preface, for which I was grateful because of the insight it offers into the author's psyche. It also proves that Angelina Archer can write better (or do I just mean more conventionally?) than she does in the main text, as she offers her own analysis of the main characters, letting us in on her sources of inspiration. According to this introduction, the book took her a whole five months to write (my first took five years!).

Having embarked on the story proper, the reader is continually startled by the juxtaposition of words, often incongruous, sometimes shocking, always memorable. I rapidly concluded that this was not a deliberate effect, merely the result of raw creative talent being let loose on the page. You could read a thousand books and never come across a sentence like, "Everyone burst out chortling", or, "Mum stupidly gawped as she watched me inhale one sandwich after another". Sometimes the usage is just plain wrong: "She tried to detract herself from the chill", but mostly it remains within the bounds of the allowable, both grammatically and semantically. I'm torn between admiration for such original turns of phrase and an uncomfortable feeling that a potentially good story is being lost somewhere behind all this verbiage.

Dialogue is a major point for Angelina Archer to work on in her next novel. At times promisingly realistic, at other times it slides into an odd mixture of Americanism and affectation that would be out of place even in an Ealing bedsit: "I can listen to you till midnight, then we can continue tomorrow, 'cause I need to go and buy some groceries for this under-stocked place, you know." The confusing and inconsistent way in which conversations are laid out on the page makes matters worse.

The story doesn't, as I feared, disappear up its own backside. The style does, however, give it surreal overtones. The characters, though sometimes unsympathetic, succeed in commanding our attention. The anti-heroine, Alana, is a formerly brilliant student reduced to alcoholism by her obsession with a famous actor - an idea that will not seem outlandish to younger readers, but which is unlikely to be selected as a subject for "serious" fiction. If we accept the often-quoted maxim, "Write about what you know", it's understandable that a writer with limited life experience should choose the kind of theme deemed irrelevant by an older age group - yet it turns out there is more to Alana's deterioration than meets the eye. On the other hand, there is more to narrative than describing every detail of a character's clothing and the complete floor plan of her home.

By anyone's standards, this book is quite an achievement. All things considered, though, I would have to hope for a reputable publisher to pick up Angelina Archer's next offering and introduce a little order into her rather undisciplined creative world. The average reader won't, I think, appreciate this style of writing. Assuming that the author aspires to greater commercial success, she can only hope for it if she is prepared to submit herself to the old-fashioned rules of the game.

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Review by Deborah Fisher

Open Book

ISBN 0 9541027 0 3    Published by Hybiscus Books, 2001
286pp, paperback       Retail price 7.99