Independent Choice: Fiction's Coming Home
King, Chris Savage, The Independent (London, England)
Spring is heralded in publishing by an outbreak of novels with watercolour covers and mild titles. Their themes are downbeat: divorce; bed death; have we done the best thing for the children?; is that all there is? The implied effect is of a soothing pastille, but these products are not indistinguishable.
Gillian White's Chain Reaction (Orion, pounds 16.99) is structured in segments, using the bright idea of a house-buyers' chain. Assorted locales and very different lives collide as everyone relocates. There's Irene, a feisty pensioner about to be turfed into an old people's home with the help of a daughter who talks like a government form. Joy and Vernon are pillars of neat Eighties aspiration, until one is driven to murder. The Middletons are an unassuming brood until their son is done on a trumped-up rape charge. In her anatomy of criminal injustice and media hysteria, White is impassioned, but never lets up on satire.
A bunch of aristocrats and their flunkies are juxtaposed with a vegetating rock star and his tough rock chic, Belle. Chain Reaction draws clever comparisons between status-led dynasties, and the culpability of new and old wealth. In her poignant and hilarious portrait of the adorable nitwit Arabella, and Janice the "subnormal" rape victim, White illustrates how irregularity is fiercely policed in the poor but allowed to run free among the privileged. She has a remarkable empathy with a rich cast of characters. Her broad but sure brushstrokes are stingingly accurate. Melodramatic, and with a generous sweep, Chain Reaction doesn't deserve its dreary cover: a Next Casuals woman walking away from a mansion. It's as if the publishers have acquired a hot property whose true worth is completely lost on them. Deborah Moggach's Close Relations (Heinemann, pounds 15.99) focuses more traditionally on the middle classes in crisis. A formulaic tale of three sisters is given a brisk respray of modernity. So Dad gets heart trouble and responds by taking up with a young black nurse. Grandpa and grandson - with their new friends - bump into each other at The Fridge. Maggie, the tomboy of the trio, has a lesbian awakening, and the spinster sister - a hackneyed archetype - gets her married lover's job. Moggach is a capable example of English fine writing, if that's what you like. While she can achieve poetic resonance, her tendency is to pull herself together and trip along into a breezier style. She often reverts to shorthand: streets are like "a Frank Capra movie", a hunky blacksmith is "Lawrentian", while the sisters - inevitably - are "Chekhovian". For all the contemporary whiz, the novel's conclusion is strangely old- fashioned. …