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Borrowed Light
Joolz Denby

Serpent’s Tail 2006 ISBN 1-85242-905-4

In Joolz Denby’s fourth novel, the second to be published by Serpent’s Tail, the novelist takes us to the Cornish surfing village of Polwenna. Astra Sharp’s life is happy enough as she looks after her MS-stricken mum, works in a cafe for her fellow ex-Bradford friend Connie and spends time with her wannabe-rock star boyfriend, Beaker, whilst gazing wistfully upon beautiful surfer, Luke – but perhaps her life is too staid? During a summer where the beautiful scenery cannot compensate for the sluggish surf, Connie’s little sister, Angel, turns up, a blank for hapless souls to fall in love with, blithely stirring up trouble in her wake.
The promise of sun, surf and lust might lead you to believe this book is less sophisticated than it is, but Denby is a master craftsman when it comes to writing compulsive, page-turning stories. A lot of that skill is in the characterisation; her protagonist is flawed, but immensely likeable. True, Astra’s family are all ‘types’, but what a diverse collection in one household: the hippy idealist parents, the biker brother, and the sisters, one a prissy Bible-bashing sister, the other a not-too-rebellious, alcopop drinking teenager. Then there’s Astra herself, who throughout the book grows wiser, taking her innate goodness less for granted as she goes. It is a joy to see how they interact.
Denby’s novels offer something different to the regular consumer of crime fiction. Terrible things happen, but her tales are not about ‘whodunit’. Rather, we see these events through the eyes of congenial people who might seem happy or normal, or even haunted, and must wait for the inevitable horror or grief-stricken confession. The approach is fresh and the results powerful.
For those more familiar with Denby’s poetry, they will not be surprised to find the text suffused with her poet’s touch, particularly in the imagery concerning Polwenna and her glittering sea. Through her homesickness for Bradford, Astra’s descriptions of beautiful Cornwall are sadly poignant.
Denby’s previous novel, Billie Morgan was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005. With any justice, this novel will receive its equally deserved accolades.

Review by Donna Scott

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