Though "mature" writers from John Updike to Saul Bellow recently have been chided for their two-dimensional depictions of women in fiction, David Attoe's explosive first novel, "Lion at the Door," proves that you don't have to be a woman to penetrate the female psyche. Attoe wiggles into the mind of Hazel Sapper, a girl growing up in industrial England in the 1950s, to reveal the ruin of her youth--and life--by her sexually abusive father. Through the voices of Hazel, her daughter and her childhood friend Rosko, Attoe convinces us that time doesn't heal all wounds.
Hazel describes her bleak family life in the poetically coarse, abbreviated dialect of the English Midlands, where her father is a coal miner. Her tender but defeated mother is impotent in the face of her husband's violence. The girl's only sanctuary is in books, which her father considers evil, and in Rosko, who takes her to the hut in the woods he built as an escape from his own domestic hell. Attoe communicates all the girlish charm of Hazel's fervid mind while he teases out the brutal realities--rape, "hidings," the girl's thwarted literary ambitions--that will eventually jaundice it. She indulges in loving descriptions of the countryside and has a special fondness for birds and plant life, her only reference to a free and unpolluted world:
"And then the gray wagtail, that had scurried up the shallows along the stream, said tzissi tzissi, and dipped its head and neck forward with every movement, as if it was agreeing with itself, as it flickered over the watery stones."
After Hazel and Rosko are beaten by their parents for falling asleep in the hideaway overnight, the boy runs away, and Hazel's remaining school years are tinged with loneliness. She waits longingly for his return, then gives up: "I realized there was nothing left to wait for and I knew I'd have to be like them now with today and tomorrow separate, bossing me . . . I didn't want to hate, but I did."
The narrative then passes to Hazel's estranged daughter, who's come home for her mother's funeral 25 years later. Daughter (also named Hazel) feels nothing for the impassive woman who, she learns from a family friend, bore two children by a violent, alcoholic husband after a shotgun wedding, then was abandoned. In short, Hazel's capacity for love was suffocated by the brutal men in her life and the economic trap they forced her into. Her children--the products of her degradation and defeat--never knew the playfully intrepid person who once inhabited her chilly shell.
When Rosko assumes the narrative voice in the book's final chapter, he's a reminder of what could have been, just as daughter Hazel is evidence of what was. We don't know half enough about his life or the daughter's, but we learn that he returned to Hazel a year before her death to reclaim her friendship, only to find her broken and vengeful: "I didn't want what was his inside me," she reflects on her first pregnancy. "Once it was in you, leeching for a life you didn't have to give, what did it matter what color eyes or hair it would have . . . He wanted no different from what my soddin' father did . . . Took it the same way. Rough."
This is a relentlessly dark novel, and the question arises: Could a woman bear children without ever loving them? Considering the increasing number of mothers who drop their infants out of windows or stuff them in garbage cans, however, Hazel's plight is not unrealistic. Attoe avoids letting his tale sink into a maelstrom of misery by animating his three narrators with rage and imbuing them with a vivid, Faulkneresque sense of the local landscape and dialect. He grants the reader the final satisfaction of the reunion, at which Rosko is able to coax forth a glimmer of the girl he once knew. He later vows to take her some garden plants to persuade her to see him again, but what happens between them in the months before her death is left to the imagination.
While many first novels are dashed off with cheap cynicism and smug urbanity, "Lion at the Door" is a gold mine of complexity, both psychological and structural. Attoe has a muscular prose style in which nouns often double as verbs, and he's able to shift narrative voices--male and female--with idiosyncratic realism. Perfectly tuned, exquisitely told, "Lion at the Door" is thorny beauty.