Red Sneakers

Jessica Olin

  • Like Normal People by Karen Bender
    Picador, 269 pp, £10.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 330 37379 X

When we first meet Lena Rose, the ‘mildly retarded’ heroine and whirlwind centre of Karen Bender’s novel, it is her wedding anniversary, and she has set fire to her room at the residential home known optimistically as Panorama Village. Lena’s mother, Ella, has been summoned to deal with the situation and plead Lena’s case to Mrs Lowenstein, the home’s director, in the hope of averting her daughter’s expulsion. The exact motive for Lena’s arson is unknown, although it may be a protest at her husband Bob’s recent and untimely death. Understanding the importance of making a good impression, Ella brings a ‘strategic’ box of See’s candy for Mrs Lowenstein and wears a pair of bone-coloured Italian leather shoes. Ella, too, is a widow, and to avoid coming on her own, she brings her 12-year-old granddaughter, Shelley, who has developed a close friendship with Lena. On the pretext of getting coffee and doughnuts, Shelley and Lena flee Panorama Village and board a bus whose destination they don’t know. Over the course of the day, during which Lena keeps expecting her husband to appear for their wedding anniversary and Shelley explores a new identity as a sexual being in an adult world, Ella, waiting at Panorama Village, revisits her life and wonders who she may become.

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