Escape from normality

4th November 1994 at 00:00
THEY DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY THERE By Jan Mark. The Bodley Head. Pounds 7.99. 0 370 31943 5.

Charlotte is just about to take GCSEs and has a good line in sour remarks about the tedious estate of middle-class mock tudor housing in which she lives. It's a place where every family is expected to have a rotary washing line situated "in that secluded part of the garden where God created larch-lap fencing panels so that no one can be afflicted by the sight of neighbour's washing".

Feeling rebellious but unable to do anything but conform and write up her Macbeth notes, she only finds an escape when she meets Elaine. She lives in the one untidy street in Compton Rosehay and the only part of the old village neglected by the developers. Her family don't have a fitted carpet and her brother has pitched a tent in his bedroom.

Everything seems set up for a gently amusing conflict between the humdrum and the mildly eccentric until the novel lurches into wacky fantasy. Charlotte and Elaine have a wild old time in their heads fantasising about a place called Stalemate, a town which exists in a fourth dimension and pokes through Compton Rosehay where Earth's fabric is thin. The story of Charlotte's frustrations with a neatly trimmed life among suburban lawns proves to be merely a framework for a series of over-inventive tales about nothing very much.

If the idea of someone writing poems on fish makes you fall about laughing, then you'll enjoy Jan Mark's new novel. True, the fish idea has a satirical edge when librarians forbidden to buy books realise that they are not forbidden to buy fish, but most of the wilder notions are dreams to send Freud to sleep. A new town of saplings excites Elaine and Charlotte with the notion that in Stalemate trees were seen as subversive. The commuters of Compton Rosehay may inspire Mr Auger, a man so deadly boring that everything expires around him. But the reader's initial smile is likely to stiffen into a cold rictus as each idea is bullied into an overlong spot on centre stage.

When Charlotte eventually comes to a warmer acceptance of life in Compton Rosehay on the grounds that "what showed through when Earth's fabric wore thin was worse, much worse" it is only too easy to agree and give the rotary washing line a celebratory spin.

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