First novels. There are two kinds: the bombastic, zeigeisty statements of intent (think The Rachel Papers, Less Than Zero, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, The Bluest Eye); and, then the quieter, more flawed pieces which offer the promise of the potential writer in the making. Twenty One Locks falls into the latter category. It’s a quiet story about Jeannie, twenty years old and Lancashire’s worst perfume girl, engaged to be married to the flesh-bound, boorish Jimmy. She is stuck in a small town life in the early 1990s, with poetic sensibilities and no means of escape until she meets Danny, who is travelled and sophisticated and throws all the certainties of her life into chaos.
It’s hard to write well about young characters, and, at twenty, Jeannie is still fragile, childlike, inexperienced, her inner life narrow. What Barton does to mitigate this is to give her Jeannie a vivid visual landscape. The promise in this book lies in the way in which the world is described. Orange squash is a ‘surly shade of amber’; old women are like walnuts; the hands of a character carry ‘the scent of brass’. The poetic language renders this nameless Lancashire town a kind of Lowry-esque still life with Jeannie at the centre, trying to move outside of the roles that have been prescribed for her.
The point of view is troublesome, Barton roaming around too much inside her characters, employing a kind of authorial voice that betrays her background in journalism. The storytelling would have needed to stay much closer to Jeannie in order to achieve a real sense of completeness. But, for all its flaws, this book is rich with the promise of a young writer (Laura Barton is in her early 30s), and should be lauded for taking an unfashionable, working class subject and rendering it with dignity and poetry. What she writes next will be the real test of her ability and ambition.