Plots

Stephen Bann

  • The Prince buys the Manor by Elspeth Huxley
    Chatto, 216 pp, £6.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7011 2651 5
  • Faultline by Sheila Ortiz Taylor
    Women’s Press, 120 pp, £2.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 7043 3900 5
  • Scenes from Metropolitan Life by William Cooper
    Macmillan, 214 pp, £6.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 333 34203 8
  • Constance, or Solitary Practices by Lawrence Durrell
    Faber, 394 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 571 11757 0
  • Mickelsson’s Ghosts by John Gardner
    Secker, 566 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 436 17251 8
  • Beware of pity by Stefan Zweig, translated by Phyllis Blewitt and Trevor Blewitt
    Cape, 354 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 224 02057 9

You have only to glance at the icing-sugar pink dust-jacket of The Prince buys the Manor to realise that there is a factual basis for Elspeth Huxley’s ‘extravaganza’. There, nestling in the wooded Cotswolds, is the familiar facade of the rather ordinary country house which has recently been dignified by the arrival of A Royal Personage. The gossip columns of the evening papers have confirmed, as the reader suspects, that the aliases scattered throughout the novel are transparent to someone with no more than a modest knowledge of the society and geography of Tetbury. The fictional ‘Ah Wong Chinese Takeaway’, not to mention ‘Pellett, the Health Food Shop’, turn out to have their counterparts in the authentic Cotswold world. Scratch the surface a little, frequent the disguised ‘Goat and Compasses’, and you will perhaps succeed in unveiling ‘Lady Evers’, the socially energetic wife of an ex-Governor of the ‘Laxative Islands’, or ‘Judy Mustard’, whose ecological fervour does not shrink from the extreme of offering her fellow believers home-made wine derived from ‘Purging Buckthorn’.

Evidently Elspeth Huxley’s ear has been open to the surging cross-currents of antagonism and recrimination which followed this unexpected visitation on the sleepy microcosm of ‘Shipton Wick’. But she has also seized the opportunity to put these rumblings around the parish pump in the context of a wider world – one of international terrorism and ecological crusading (the two turn out to be curiously intermingled), one of unresolved tensions between the ex-colonial powers and the new, disconcertingly volatile countries of the Third World. Not for nothing has Mrs Huxley been described, with this book in mind, as a ‘cross between Miss Marple and George Smiley’. She engineers a conclusion in which the Royal Personage only just, by a fortunate accident, escapes the toils of an expensively planned kidnapping plot. But the real beneficiaries of the action are a pair of innocent badgers, threatened with gassing by the men from the Ministry, who achieve a final ‘translocation’ to the estate which the terrorists have vacated.

All this is cleverly done. The novel makes modest claims and fulfils them. But it needs to be said that Mrs Huxley’s satirical targets are, on the whole, very obvious ones. The African general who arrives between coups for a spell as an honorary equerry to HRH is at first mildly amusing, but soon becomes an embarrassment. Can we summon up the wannest of smiles, nowadays, to greet the announcement that the Arts Council is subsidising a young artist to make piles of rubbish in the ‘back streets’ of Bootle? Mrs Huxley trades too much on the comic stereotypes of the English scene, and only in a splendidly disorganised ‘Bed Race’ towards the end of the novel does her satire strike a genuinely fresh, anarchistic note.

For the American author Sheila Ortiz Taylor, the stakes of satire are higher and more carefully calculated. When Mrs Huxley requires a simile to denote the process of gathering information, she selects one from close at hand: Lady Evers is described as probing gently for the news ‘rather as people thrust skewers into the turf at a church fête to hit upon the hidden treasure’. Ms Ortiz Taylor sets up her fiction on much shakier ground – not on the turf of the village green but on the thin crust of earth which protects California from the San Andreas fault. If she also selects a homely simile, it is to pile layer upon layer the pretexts for her heroine’s insecurity: ‘Picture, if you will, a tiny child standing next to her mother’s knee, watching with wonder as the water in the toilet bowl swirls and eddies before her wondering eyes. Emblems of change! Those tumultuous waters were but minute symptoms of the larger stirrings beneath our feet, rumblings and burblings that might someday crack the earth, sliding Santa Monica and the Pacific Palisades into the sea like so many biscuits off the cookie sheet of existence.’

Arden Bembow, heroine of the aptly titled Faultline, does not have to experience this final cataclysm. But she does have to cope with the prospect of a more modest one. An ill-advised neglect of the breeding habits of the family pets results in wild proliferation. Rabbits are undermining the property, honeycombing the subsoil at an alarming rate. Naturally it is out of the question to attempt a drastic solution like poisoning or gassing. The rabbits (like the fortunate badgers of Shipton Wick) must be ‘relocated’. In a series of brief chapters, Ms Ortiz Taylor plays this slightly improbable plot for all that it is worth, convoking new characters from time to time, like the ‘feed man’, Griff, and ‘Muncey from Muncey’s Old English Sheepdog Farms’. If we cease eventually to hear about the rabbits, that is because a more important theme takes over – Arden’s flight to Mexico with her Aunt Violet (absconding from hospital) and a motley crew which finally includes the private detective who is chasing them.

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