Lisa, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of Peerless Flats, focuses a lively and childlike point of view similar to that of Esther Freud’s previous novel, Hideous Kinky (1992). Peerless Flats begins as Lisa, her five-year-old half-brother, Max, and their mother, Marguerite, move into an apartment that “the council” has given them. The apartment is on Peerless Street in London, and it is barely big enough for them to fit into. Yet they are used to conditions like this, having moved many times over the years.
Most of the characters in the novel reflect this instability. Ruby, Lisa’s eighteen-year-old sister, lives with Jimmy Bright and then with Tom (both equally unreliable), then with Marlene, a patient whom she befriends when she is in the hospital with hepatitis. Lisa and Ruby’s father is a gambler, dependable but elusive, and Max’s father, Swan Henderson, leaves Marguerite to travel around the world with his Dutch girlfriend, Trudy. Marguerite’s lovers are a tribute to her uncertainty with men, just as her lack of employment is a sign of her difficulty solidifying her life. The job she did have when she was pregnant with Ruby was hardly the type to generate security, for she was a nude model. Max expresses his own instability by creating a private world, which he fills with foxes; he charges about demanding that everyone around him respect his violence.
That they have left their homes and have small jobs or none at all shows the tenuous lives of other characters in the novel. Tom and his sister Sarah, for example, have left their home in Scotland (or Wales, the story suggests at one point) for London, where Sarah works in a clothing store and Tom, having left a farm-management program in East Anglia, does nothing discernible for a living. Quentin, Lisa’s eventual lover, has left Belfast and deals in drugs, and Frances, a recent mother in Peerless Flats, has left Ireland, where her child’s father still lives. Heidi and her sister Pam, other tenants in the building, have left Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, like other white expatriates who gather in Heidi’s apartment.
Lisa herself highlights the novel’s motif of uncertainty by seldom holding still. Much of the time she jumps on and off buses and trains and runs from one place to another. Besides being hyperkinetic, Lisa is fearful and romantic. She is afraid of several things, such as telling her mother what Ruby is up to. The street she lives on is dominated by high-rise apartments, and her shortcut home brings her so close to them that she is afraid that she will be assaulted or something will fall on her head. She is even afraid of X-rated movies. Quentin takes her to one, Scum; she goes to the ladies’ room four times during it and peers through her fingers the rest of the time to avoid really seeing it.
Lisa’s greatest fear is of being poisoned. At first she merely cannot abide eating oysters, but later she is afraid that the drinks she has in pubs are drugged. After she drinks cider that she suspects has been drugged by Steen, a friend of her neighbor Heidi, she can barely eat at all, certainly not without closely examining her food.
This phobia becomes particularly intense when she has the apartment (the second-and somewhat larger—one that she and Marguerite and Max have moved into in Peerless Flats by then) to herself during Christmas. She dreads taking her eyes off a meal she has cooked, lest it be poisoned; she even takes it with her to the toilet. In the end, the only way she can eat at least some of the meal is to pretend that her mother is sitting at the table with her.
In this instance, it is Lisa’s fear of loneliness that triggers her fear of eating. In fact, “she felt so lonely she could hardly bring herself to get out of bed,” and she tries to visit a woman she met at a bus stop once and cannot remember how to find.
Her need to be with people is a feature of Lisa’s need to nurture them, especially those closest to her. This need is a form of worship when it comes to Ruby, to whom Lisa brings narcissi, a bracelet she wishes she had herself, and heroin, in the hospital. Later, when Ruby in a new apartment sounds odd on the telephone, Lisa rushes there...
(The entire section is 1737 words.)