The Sweet Track
By Avril Joy
Flambard Press £8.99, 256 pages
FT bookshop price: £7.19
Lilli returns to her childhood home to look after her dying mother. She soaks up her mother’s memories of Somerset Marsh, inhales the smells of Supersoft hairspray, traces the picture of her errant father, and tries on her grandmother’s wedding ring. Then she cycles off to meet Maurice, a freakish character who likes her to urinate on him. It’s a shocking and intriguing opener. It sets up Lilli to be a complex character, mixing promiscuity and homely charm – she indulges her childhood taste for sundaes at an old-fashioned Italian ice-cream parlour, while allowing the corpulent asthmatic Maurice to sweat and puff all over her.
Meanwhile, her estranged childhood friend, Becca, is in London, singing jazz in pubs and consuming cocaine, cigarettes and chocolate. She shares a flat and occasionally a bed with her brother Joe: “living in symbiosis, like honeypot ants and their aphids”. At night she inhabits a dream world of childhood sands and high tides.
These characters tantalise but fail to deliver. We never discover their feelings. Despite appearing eccentric, they are alarmingly straight-forward. Lilli packs in promiscuity and begins to hear the echoes of other women’s lives from the marsh, stories that call to her from ancient tracks beneath the once-flooded land. This creates some slightly annoying background noise. If she hears these voices, she doesn’t listen: they don’t inform any changes in her thoughts or her actions.
Becca is a frustratingly passive character. She pretends her pregnancy isn’t happening, and drinks and smokes through it. By the end, she appears to be staggeringly shallow: she tries to abandon her hidden baby but changes her mind because he smells nice.
Finally, the pair end their estrangement, meet up, have a little chat, a cry and share some secrets. It all feels a bit like a story-telling-by-numbers tale of female friendship.