Nelcott is My Darling / By Golda Fried

Coach House Books, 178 pp, $17.95, softcover.

It's good to see an author mature rather than merely continue to write. It's even better when that maturing author retains all the wonder and whimsy that made her almost cloying, less mature self so damn attractive.

Golda Fried's first book was a giggle; her second was a sigh. Darkness, Then a Blown Kiss was one of the now mostly defunct Gutter Press's signal achievements during the middle years of the past decade. In that book, Fried managed to slink right up to the very verge of too twee, of cutesy, of unbearably quirky, and then to veer off just as your lip was making its way into a sneer. She was like Emily Watson in Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves.

And now, with Nelcott Is My Darling, she gives us a book that's everything Darkness would have been had it been written by a slightly better writer, one who understands, for instance, that absurdity, that lampshade on the head of comic writing, can bear more weight if it's harmonized with well-tuned characters.

The story is about a Toronto girl, the perfectly named Alice, who goes to McGill University (differences between alt-Toronto and alt-Montreal are well-sketched). She's odd and slight, with a delicacy that turns out to be less glass menagerie and more lace doily (just try to pull one of those things apart).

Fried maintains her former quirkiness, able still to make phrases like "Alice felt like a little teacup full of fear" work (really) or make credible the possibility of there being someone who does somersaults on her bed to "shake up the sadness in her head". What we get here that we didn't so much last time is depth. Though the secondary characters are mostly one-dimensional, we can see both the attraction and the probability of future chronic abuse in Nelcott, Alice's darling. And in Alice herself, we get brief, effective glimpses of some of the annoying and harmful effects such eccentricity, inherently self-centred for all its naiveté, necessarily has on others.

A longer review would quibble more and praise more. But let's leave it at this: Nelcott is one of the few genuinely good small-press books that will be published this year. Read it to restore your faith in writers you've never heard of.