<em>Lucinda's Whirlwind</em> by Louise Limerick. Macmillan, $24.99.

Lucinda's Whirlwind by Louise Limerick. Macmillan, $24.99.

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Australian writer Louise Limerick's first novel centred on five thirtysomething mothers and a missing baby. Her second has been scaled down to a tale of two sisters.

In Lucinda's Whirlwind Lucinda and Jayne have a bond that's more obligatory than heartfelt. The antithesis between the two is clear to both. Lucinda, the elder, has renounced any expectations of love, a joint bank account or the rabble of children: she's yet to be married at the age of 43.

Instead she has a new flat in the suburbs of Brisbane, a Renault, a job at a museum, no friends and a reverence for daily equilibrium.

Jayne is a mother of two in a marriage that's become uncomfortable. The loss of her mother - their mother - has exposed her to pain her husband can't defuse. When she tries to talk about her dissatisfaction, Brian redirects her attention to the flash cards he's prepared on how to use the remote control. After a life of dutiful behaviour, Jayne rebels. She abandons her family without warning and boards a plane to the US, embarking on the holiday her mother had once planned to share with her two daughters.

Since Brian is stranded in a remote Aboriginal community in far north Queensland negotiating a housing development, Lucinda is forced to move into Jayne's house to look after eight-year-old Madison and teenage David. To this collection Limerick adds a pert dachshund prone to overreacting and Wesley Heslop, a friend of David's with a history of sleeping on the couch and a belief in the restorative powers of daytime TV.

Lucinda is an unusual protagonist. An author trades in perspicacity, but this needn't be shared by her characters. Thus Limerick has created a person out of sync with the world. Lucinda lacks social grace. She inquires as to whether a Down syndrome child has ''an 'off' switch'' and tells another woman she's a charity case. It's not a particular show of defiance, but an inability to decipher other people's emotions. She is an anti-heroine of sorts, a paradoxical role perhaps less familiar for female characters. It's difficult to like her at first, but this may be said of some of the most memorable heroines, Emma Woodhouse among them, though Austen made her rather better with children.

Limerick's writing comfortably enters into a modern, casual idiom. When Lucinda considers the Dickensian appearance of the sickly looking Wesley, she's drawn from her reverie by Madison's analysis: ''He's an emo.''

It's a sentiment later confirmed in conference with the El Salvadorian maid: ''Un emo.''

Facebook is used when the dog goes missing and Lucinda goes by the name of Aunty Loopy. It amounts to an accurate depiction of 21st-century childhood.

Brian's time spent in Locke Island is the greatest deviation from the theme. His career in public service leads him to a dry community where a local Aboriginal trustee is interested in protesting the alcohol-free legislation by refusing to sign off on a housing scheme. This leads to an interesting experience for the fastidious Brian involving a boat, an esky and a cyclone warning.

Lucinda's Whirlwind is a family-oriented story, a very reasonable focal point, but Limerick's construction of the intimate mayhem of familial relations doesn't always reach the pitch that might have been hoped for.

A more exaggerated strain of comedy and exploration of the gentle absurdity of children would have worked well, such as when Madison mourns the loss of her dog by building its simulacrum out of toilet rolls.

Even so, Limerick - a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist in 2004 - has written a novel full of charm, loss, sisters, taxidermy, an American road trip, a wedding and redemption.

LUCINDA'S WHIRLWIND
Louise Limerick
Macmillan, 302pp, $24.99