Billie Morgan is a middle-aged woman living alone with her cats in Bradford. She runs a new-age gift shop, and is worriedly devoted to her wild teenage godson, Natty. She has an occasional lover, who is married, and she is estranged from her mother and sister. Her father is dead.

Denby, a punk poet and writer who broadcasts herself as an expert in "body modification", immediately reveals Billie's big secret. Years ago, when Billie Morgan was a self-styled biker chick, she killed a man.

The murder, of Natty's scumbag father, was never discovered. Everyone just assumed the man had done a runner. The trauma also effectively killed Billie's marriage and the guilt has corroded her spirit ever since.

But as we first meet Billie in the now and today, she thinks she is about to be exposed by a journalist and so is writing a long confessional to her young friend Leckie, who works at the gift shop. Through this 280-page examination, self-justification and supplication, we get to know the how, why and where of Billie from her early unhappy family life to the present day.

Unfortunately, given all the material Denby crowds herself with — a somewhat cliched melange of sex, drugs, alcohol, gangs, murder, illness — the result is not particularly convincing.

Denby was longlisted for the Orange Prize in Britain for this novel, which was one of the reasons I persevered long after I'd lost interest in Billie's fate. A major problem is over-writing, with Billie's long-winded interior dialogue and florid descriptive passages overloaded with metaphor and psychobabble. The tone is jarringly inconsistent at times. One minute Billie is chatting away about the garden and her cats, the blue skies and the lovely land, the next she's winding herself up into purple prose about depression and uncontrollable anger. She does pat herself on the back an awful lot for caring for Natty and his junkie mum Jaz, then she's off into bitter blameland because of her nasty, cold mother.

The thing with a novel that purports to explore the hidden world of biker cults, which it doesn't do any more than many others in the genre, is that the reader still has to find something or someone that's interesting, to make you want to keep going, to clip the narrative along. I kept hoping, because of the Orange nomination, that there would be a turn-for-the-better. Well, there are a couple of awful surprises towards the end, and Billie gets to achieve her dream — and then she tells us all about it in a breathy hippy-dippy postscript that confirmed earlier suspicions. Tough chick? My ass.

* Serpents Tail, $29.95