A positive message

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 October, 1998, 12:00am

THIS debut novel is a wonderful journey of self-discovery through the odd underbelly of American society.

Chloe, abandoned by her mother and dragged up by her itinerant father, had found security with her benign husband, Alva. But such normalcy becomes intolerable and, like her mother, she ups sticks, leaving Alva a note to say being good is just not enough.

Chloe boards the first Greyhound bus heading to a destination she fancies: Arizona.

Seedy hostels, casual factory work and friendship, and finally Ethel with her outsized-body and heart, await her. As she travels she ponders whether leaving Alva was really the right thing to do. Throughout the novel Chloe has to face up to the consequences of her action.

Virginia Lipman deals with the issue of marital conflict, without dealing with the sordid sparring. Alva starts as just a name. We learn more about him through Chloe.

Chloe's sad, strange past and present is gradually pieced together. But she is tough and the novel never sinks into miserablism.

Nor is she alone. Lipman presents an array of characters, odd but so real, who might reveal equally dysfunctional backgrounds if the reader could spend more pages getting to know them.

Chloe hitches a lift with a transvestite and a fast-driving old lady who side-tracks her to an evangelical church. But as in life, these and other characters pass by. We see briefly into their souls before moving on with Chloe.

The novel has a positive, universal message for women, that dreams may just come true. Lipman's style is direct, smart and brassy. But from that base she smoothly lifts her writing with rich, well-chosen imagery, whether to describe Ethel's rolls of fat or Chloe's honest assessment of her life. This accomplished novel is heart-warming, a read to savour.

KATHERINE FORESTIER Leaving Alva by Victoria Lipman Simon and Schuster, $220