Loosely modelled on the tragic life of Scottish child star Lena Zavaroni, Personality, Andrew O'Hagan's second novel, scrutinises the more insidious aspects of fame and the family. Told through an array of different voices--including a fictionalised Hughie Green--it centres on the story of Maria Tambini, a teenager from Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute, who becomes an international singing sensation before falling victim to anorexia and the unwelcome attentions of a fan.
The novel opens at the height of the Silver Jubilee festivities. The Tambinis, whose individual stories also drive and augment the narrative, are Italian immigrants. Haunted by a few unresolved ghosts from the war, they struggle to make a living in Rothesay, a resort whose tourist trade has been decimated by "jet engines, Thomson holidays and Lloret de Mar". Rosa, Maria's neurotic mother, runs the chip shop; Uncle Alfredo is a hairdresser and Grandmother Lucia simply nurses memories of her long dead first child, Sofia, "a lovely singer". The weight of their dysfunctional aspirations, not unsurprisingly, fall on 13-year-old Maria. Spotted by a TV talent scout, she wins Opportunity Knocks. Leaving the family far behind, she moves to London and, briefly, takes the international world of light entertainment by storm. The speed with which she is estranged from her old life is neatly, if not completely believably, illustrated in her correspondence with a one-time best friend: while Kalpana chats about Gormenghast and the boys she fancies, Maria's increasingly brief and self-absorbed missives start to read like extracts from beauty manuals.
O'Hagan may indulge in what is best described as "product placement" period detail (references to Girl's World, Cola Cubes and McEwan's Export etc) but this is certainly not an exercise in 1970s and 80s nostalgia. In harking back to a slightly more innocent era, a period when both eating disorders and the downsides of fame were certainly less well publicised, if not well known, this impressive novel makes resonant points about our unwavering obsession with celebrity. "Nowadays", O'Hagan's Hughie Green grumbles, "the kids don't want to be good and they don't care about being the best: they want fame". Plus ša change. --Travis Elborough