Impossibilities

Walter Nash

  • Saraband by Patrice Chaplin
    Methuen, 216 pp, £13.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 413 63290 3
  • Pious Secrets by Irene Dische
    Bloomsbury, 147 pp, £14.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0835 6
  • City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
    Deutsch, 220 pp, £12.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 233 98661 8

I marvel at how modern authors, almost to a man – or more often, to a woman – can wheedle a reader into a story, working their pitch so elegantly that by the turn of the page you are ready for any tomfoolery, even for the absurd saga of that staunch American couple, Virgil and Laraine, who have a daughter called Sam who is described as ‘feisty’, and a son called Hap who keeps on grinning his slow, rueful grin and quoting thoughtful bits out of the philosophy books he steals from the library. Beware of this boy: he is a psychopath, and on page 243 will pursue his mother with murderous intent through the steam laundry, until Mrs Lobkowitz, their garrulous, gritty, warm-hearted Jewish neighbour, fells him with a coolly-placed rabbit punch.

Here is an opening I find irresistible, like talk overheard from the next table, or confidences caught in a sudden silence on the Underground:

When he said he was having an affair with the young girl she didn’t quit. When her eldest boy went back on drugs she didn’t quit. When the agency said she was no longer young enough to do glamour commercials – in other words her looks like the rest of her life were going downhill – she still didn’t quit. Then one day she went to the sink, started washing up and as she scraped the golden fleece scourer around a blue and white striped cup, she quit.

The resolute non-quitter is Alexis Scott, a chanteuse whose song is ending as she appears in this first paragraph of Patrice Chaplin’s Saraband, a spicy tale of lust and cuisine in London NW1. The book begins splendidly, and it has to be said that any red-blooded gossip must want to know more about an obviously formidable woman – who however, is allowed to throw herself under a train on page five after which the narrative belongs to kay. (Who is Kay? I am going to tell you. Eat your broccoli.)

Kay is a successful woman, a beauty, a cook, a campaigner for justice and a columnist of national acclaim, right? She is erotically equipped with long legs, big breasts, and a Roman nose with flared nostrils, endowments calculated to set men thinking impure thoughts. She herself is contemptuous of thought in any of its manifestations, and puts her trust in impassioned femininity of feeling, rather like Mae West, only with less good humour. Her husband, Joel, is a rich company director, a boardroom gladiator, a bit of a thinker, a man who has his fill of the world’s goods, yet hankers – poor deluded fellow – after an academic career, and keeps inviting professors to his house for a decent meal. Their daughter Sophie has been sent to a comprehensive school, and is in consequence an abominably feisty brat. Their son Tom, a minimally marginal character, is a sad, shadowy introvert who has been ‘shoved into Harrow’, but now cannot pass the examinations that will get him into ‘a top university’. Readers may share my concern for Tom, and will want to advise him to forget about Oxford and look around for an accommodating steam laundry. He owes it to his parents.

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