cover image Pure


Rebbecca Ray. Grove/Atlantic, $14 (404pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-3700-5

""I was about thirteen when I started letting the boys feel me up."" Thus the reader is catapulted directly into the conflicted world of a smalltown English schoolgirl in 20-year-old Ray's relentlessly driven debut novel (she left school at 16 to write it). The narrator (whose name is never given) lives with her constantly bickering hippie vegetarian parents and her younger brother. Her self-pitying, feckless father obsesses over her homework, friends and clothes, and enlists her aid in belittling and disparaging her mother. When she reaches high school, the narrator desperately wants to join the in-crowd. She's in luck when she starts dating Robin, who is part of the popular group. Soon she abandons her former, less cool friends and spends lunch hours ""snogging"" with Robin. Strangely, Robin's touch does not appeal to the narrator until he hits her and she experiences her first sexual response. Robin loses his masochistic appeal when he says that he loves her, and the narrator moves on to Oliver, a 27-year-old consumer electronics salesman. Oliver's rough treatment proves orgasmic; his escalating violence releases her impulses toward self-mutilation. The narrator's befogged passivity (evidenced by her constant repetition of the phrase ""I wondered"") and her fascination with the sordidness of the physical side of life (a favorite word is ""disgusted"") make her mind a somewhat claustrophobic place to be, while her eventual insights into her family dysfunction will seem dated to those who grew up with Catcher in the Rye. However, the novel's structure--short segments, no chapters and zingy clinchers--moves this compelling story along swiftly to a surprising conclusion. The narration is leavened with touches of deadpan humor and spot-on observations that add credibility and demonstrate Ray's promise as a writer, despite some evidence of immaturity in her craft. Agent, Patrick Walsh. (July)