28 MARCH 1998, Page 27

Clinical but compassionate

Anne Chisholm

ME AND THE FAT MAN by Julie Myerson Fourth Estate, £14.99, pp. 217 In an English provincial town modelled on Bath a composed 27-year-old called Amy works as a waitress in a restaurant serving fashionable food like pan-fried halibut with salsa verde and pepper risotto. She lives with a suitable computer sales- man husband she barely tolerates in a tidy flat with a dog called Megan she does not care for. Amy looks angelic, with her long fair hair and pale eyes, but her past is murky. She was brought up by foster- parents after her mother's early death; she never knew her father. She is building up a secret savings account with money she makes by selling oral sex to men she meets in her favourite corner of the local park, the sweetly-scented Garden for the Blind. One day this uneasy but manageable existence is disrupted by the arrival of a middle-aged stranger, Harris, at Green- away's restaurant. He has spotted her in the garden; he knew her mother, and he has plans for her. It is clear within the first few pages of this accomplished, unsettling novel about obsession, death, memory and deceit that something deeply nasty is in store for Amy, the abandoned child who does not know how to love and deals in impersonal paid sex instead. Harris has the power to dig up the past; he tells her he worshipped her mother, Jody, who ran away to Greece with a disastrous boyfriend and drowned herself off the beach where Amy spent the first six years of her life. She remembers almost nothing about what happened there; his knowledge puts her at his mercy, so that when he asks her to take on his young friend Gary she finds herself doing what he wants. Gary is quiet, dark and uncommu- nicative; he is also hugely fat. Although Amy is knowledgeable about the mechanics of sex she is increasingly out of her depth with the emotional needs Harris stirs up. She is drawn to Gary; his bulk and gentleness comfort her. At first he resists her, but she seduces him and, to Harris's displeasure, they fall in love and have a child. Amy finds herself awash with love, both erotic and maternal, and hence vulnerable. The story ends in Greece, where Amy finally learns the truth about Harris, Gary and her mother, whose sins are visited on her with a terrible vengeance.

It would not be fair to Julie Myerson's plot, which works on the reader like an emotional thriller, to give away any more. In any case it is not really the story, which becomes increasingly far-fetched and improbable, that gives her book its consid- erable strength. She specialises in giving apparently ordinary characters and familiar places a disturbing, sinister aspect and she writes unusually well. The delicacy and precision with which she describes Amy's ministrations to her seedy clients make something oddly beautiful out of pathos and disgust. This is not a novel for the squeamish, with its close attention to the body's fluids and aromas and its preoccu- pation with physical and emotional disinte- gration. But Myerson is compassionate as well as clinical with her characters, espe- cially with her heroine, who is manipulated and exploited at every turn and whose cool toughness is shown to be only skin-deep. It is a relief, and a surprise, to find a tentative suggestion as the book closes that Amy has not been deprived of all hope of love renewed.