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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Book Review: Nirvana Bites by Debi Alper

by Suzan Abrams in Dublin.

A well-rounded fast-paced novel, not often seen in a debut work of fiction.

London-based novelist, Debi Alper sketches up a snazzy comic thriller, Nirvana Bites that cleverly acquaints the gaiety of colourful S&M bondage sessions complete with complicated gender identities and impressive leather, with the lethal combination of clownish misfits and sobering misfortunes, in a South London housing co-op.

Think the brilliant mix of whips with the hushed-up secrets of aquariums, bungling crooks famed for their clumsy topples, dashing to safety from an axe-welding lady, a spy for a shop so keen on his masquerade as a Big Issue salesman he forgets his intended surveillance, the kind and sweet dominatrix and real friendships conceived in that astonishing way from unconventional situations.

With the clear nuances of pulp fiction easily evident and the accented dialogue reminiscent of a film noir clip, think too, a high-level crime drama profiling intriguing episodes in this diligent work of lighter fiction; one that also signals hometruths featuring the marginalised.

Appropriately christened Nirvana, the housing estate with its troubled lifestyles, is Eden to half-a-dozen motley individuals who capsule up a ready-made family derived from a neighbourhood that specialises in different personality traits ranging from the violent coarseness of a tigress fury and the goddess of common sense to meditative silences and a self-imposed spirituality.

Throw in too, the chimney smoking middle-aged shopkeeper, Mrs. V, with breasts as long as a spaniel's ears for an added eccentricity.

One gets the impression of a one-for-all and all-for-one motto as they meet for regular meetings, observe BBC's Hustle style plans and occasionally embrace a fair bit of loving.

The resounding smoothness of a hardy plot, sardonic wit and fine characterisation, are all rolled into one, in Nirvana Bites where Alper takes her main heroine, Jenny into a regretful meeting with Stanley Highshore, - better know as Stapled Stan - quite by accident as the latter attempts to commit suicide in what might be termed as following a slightly cartoonish if not devious plan even as Jenny innocently attempts a job interview but must now be called upon to save the day.

This decision sees her coaxing Stan back to Nirvana - a decision she later regrets - where the wealthy executive with a dark past, attempts to reconcile with the rest of the gang who seem less than impressed with his wads of cash and the real possibility that Stan is hounded by crooks who want his head on the chopping block.

A series of unfortunate crises ranging from frights to sarcastic quips, sprout up in Nirvana as invisible crooks warn the gang to lay off. Jen is herself threatened and bashed but gamely takes it in her stride.

Jenny's character flourishes as it pulsates from strength to strength; here a comic half-crazed lady - but never once lacking in her ironical wit - to a determined steely woman with a darker sexual past, stemming from childhood in the shape of a hated father.

Interesting contrasts on life's kinder moments are served up the unexpected. Yes, the dominitrax has a heart if not some well slapped up humour and women appear to rule the roost.

All of the other characters are smartly placed as they command apt roles in the book.

However, Stan for whom the engaging plot rolled out, in the first place seems undeveloped and left largely in the shadows. Appearing simply as a piece of unpleasant bait to the others, his redeeming qualities are never seen or allowed to shine from start to finish and the rest of the characters easily overpower Stapled Stan's fictitious role with vibrant anecdotes of their own; all of which sadly suggested an uneven balance.

Another section that made empathy difficult for this reader was when one of the gang Nick is killed. His head is found rolling in the garden next door, having been mistaken for a football by Mrs. V's dog. The police later find his body on railway tracks nearby.

The fact that Robin, one of the gang had known Nick since he was 11 and had grown anxious over his friend's earlier disappearance but had shown no further attempt at mourning, seemed bewildering. No too, did the others. Jenny was worried they would blame her for dragging them all into this slice of crime that did their friend in.

Instead, no one blames Jenny and they all gather to herald support for another friend's death. Alper's serious effort at demonstrating a solid camaraderie seemed slightly contrived, considering that a murder in the family would appear to have stayed nothing more than a calm acceptance with only Jenny sobbing at a graveside.

But this hardly matters in the greater scheme of things when you think of how Alper has shouldered a brilliant wit and a sharply-drawn plot to give her novel a tight polished finish with the whiff of a chill at the end.

Alper's talent makes sure that the reader chuckles aloud at the high comedy that's nothing short of a classy affair and this clearly structured, with no room for boredom.

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