£9.99, Valley Press
Pupil barrister Polina battles with her demons in this bleak yet amusing tale of two families struggling to suppress their most obnoxious traits. In Polina’s case, ‘work calls were ignored and vodka was a laser beam of sense in the gloom’ despite head of chambers, Paul, ‘peel[ing] back the sky to release a deluge of good fortune’.
Much of Polina’s distress, perhaps echoing her mum Maggie’s relationship with pills, is deftly laid out by law lecturer Kate Smith in the form of a legal negligence claim, with headings such as ‘damaged by motherhood/genetics/both/other?’. Smith, an ex-lawyer specialising in negligence law, also has fun charting the downfall of Isaac, whom we learn ‘had done pupillage when still a foetus’. Despite the Legal 500 enthusing about his ‘meteoric’ rise, later he’s seen apparently trying to rob a petrol station.
Away from chambers, much of the story rests on the fractious relationship between Polina and her friend Grace. Here Smith lathers on the black comedy and the theme of negligence dovetails superbly with the way Amy and Doug, who are totally ill-equipped to be parents, treat their children Grace and Ed, especially when they are left alone after the grown-ups go on holiday to the Lake District. Doug is a particularly sharp caricature of someone at boiling point, for when the front door slammed it ‘meant Doug was home’. Such is his hubris, he seems unrepentant when asked ‘how can you run someone over and pretend you didn’t?’. But there is poignancy too in Doug’s relationship with his son, Ed, when on his 17th birthday his dad’s desire for Ed to take the wheel ends in embarrassment. Ed imagines ‘his real dad’ would have chucked him the keys to a Porsche.
Back in chambers, Smith has a knack of describing a world in microcosm, so ‘you could sense the scale of their victories and defeats in court from the way they poured their tea’. However, I revelled more in Smith’s sparkling writing, which reminded me of Maggie O’Farrell’s phrase-making, than the actual story. I would have preferred fewer of the familiar motifs of bickering families and drunkenness, though integral to the negligence theme. Perhaps someone recovering from addiction would have leavened the gloom.
With writing this sharp and memorable – my favourite line concerns the ‘beaming white ribs which caged her canary heart’ – I am looking forward to whatever theme Smith decides to explore in her next work.
Nicholas Goodman is a sub-editor at the Law Society Gazette