Good Girls and Bad Girls

Anita Brookner

  • Porky by Deborah Moggach
    Cape, 236 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 224 02948 7
  • The Banquet by Carolyn Slaughter
    Allen Lane, 191 pp, £6.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 7139 1574 9
  • Binstead’s Safari by Rachel Ingalls
    Faber, 221 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 571 13016 X
  • In Good Faith by Edith Reveley
    Hodder, 267 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 340 32012 5
  • Cousins by Monica Furlong
    Weidenfeld, 172 pp, £7.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 297 78231 2
  • The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro
    Allen Lane, 233 pp, £7.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7139 1549 8
  • On the Stroll by Alix Kates Shulman
    Virago, 301 pp, £8.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 86068 364 8
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
    Women’s Press, 244 pp, £3.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 7043 3905 6
  • Mistral’s Daughter by Judith Krantz
    Sidgwick, 531 pp, £8.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 283 98987 4

Those happy readers who sing hymns of praise to lyrical childhoods, their own, and, by extension, those in their favourite works of fiction, would do well to study Deborah Moggach’s extraordinarily skilful account of a childhood blasted by what is now acknowledged to be a more widespread offence than was previously recognised: incest. To write about childhood without sentiment is difficult, for childhood can be a time of boredom and confusion, when events occur in advance of the critical apparatus which might accept or deflect them. One of Deborah Moggach’s great successes is to portray this state of randomness while making us aware that it is only a matter of time before a dawning consciousness will reflect on damage irrevocably done.

Heather Mercer is called Porky because her father keeps pigs in a ramshackle field near Heathrow Airport. Heather is a very good girl: the neatest order reigns in her tiny bedroom although she is aware of the flyblown chaos in and around the bungalow which is the home provided by her parent. All food is fried, the television is on full blast, the air is thick with cigarette smoke; in the yard, shed or field where Porky tries to play, stands the evidence of various abandoned enterprises, the pigs, a few hens, a van, the odd parked car or two. Overhead the jets roar off to distant places. The landscape is dominated by airport hotels and by factories with names like Dataloop Systems.

Mother is a cold, silent, defeated woman, who goes off to work at Terminal Two wearing a tightly-knotted headscarf and a turquoise fitted coat. Father doesn’t go anywhere much: he is large, shiftless, amiable and foolish, the sort of parent to be preferred by an affectionate and uncritical child. While mother goes into hospital to have an unwanted second baby, the affection of the father for the daughter, and of the daughter for the father, becomes corrupt. For if both come to the realisation that the father is enormously, monstrously, unforgivably guilty, Porky also knows that her collusion was genuine, because she genuinely loved her father.

And Porky is still a good girl. She grows up, diets, learns French from cassettes, and fulfils her lifelong ambition of becoming an air hostess. She likes men, of course, but only those who stay the night in airport hotels and whom she will never see again: the more unattractive they are, the freer she feels. All this is excellently done, and so naturally achieved that I resented the intrusion of melodrama into the dénouement. On her travels, Porky, who is now quite affectless, meets a young Muslim who falls in love with her. They move into a flat in Earl’s Court, and, through indifference or self-destructiveness, she serves him a meal containing pork. Without the very careful setting – that wasteland between the A4 and the A30 – the story would lose much of its impact. The most terrible image is not one of physical violation, but of the evidence of it which is provided when Porky comes home from school to find the door of her cherished bedroom open: there is a dent in the eiderdown, a saucer containing two cigarette stubs on the floor, and a pervasive smell of sweat and smoke. Her father has been there. This sets up a genuine tremor of dread.

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