Fiction

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
"Living with Henry, she reflected, was like being in a cupboard with a door closed." This thought comes to Elinor, wife of the fat, flatulent and unreconstructed Henry Farr, as she watches other middle-aged suburban wives in her early music group surge towards Esmond Brice, their conductor,like plants offered light after being confined to the dark.

Brice, who is also a psychotherapist, is keen on "authenticity", in music and in human relationships, and holds private auditions in his home, clad only in a blue towelled dressing-gown, in order to achieve it.

We are back again in Wimbledon in Nigel Williams's Scenes from a Poisoner's Life (Faber amp; Faber, Pounds l4.99) where houses have front gardens and the names of the streets (the Farrs live in Maple Drive) create an impression of leafy calm.

Though Elinor finds the area "dull, unrewarding and pathetically small-minded", in Nigel Williams's fiction it is is peopled with an exotic mix of lunatics, half-crazed grandmothers, fetishists and serial killers.

In this new book Williams resists any temptation to play with genres, as he did in his science-fiction spoof, They Came from SW19, and settles instead for knock-about comedy.

Henry, his main protagonist, has no illusions about his daughter's grossness or the daily grind of small animosities that bind him and his wife together. ("'It's in the car,' she said in the grim, determined manner she always affected when speaking of shopping.") He nicknames his neighbours "Is The Mitsubishi Scratched Yet" or "The Nazi Who Escaped Justice At Nuremberg" and is equally less than enthusiastic when his mother-in-law, a former receptionist, visits. "Long hours of sitting in deserted lobbies with an anticipatory smile on her face had given her a very special quality. She bestowed a provisional quality on almost any social occasion at which she was present."

Kirsty Gunn, on the other hand, in her choice of tone, the rhythmn of her sentences and use of landscape details, allows everything to shape the theme of loss in Rain (Faber amp; Faber, Pounds 5.99).

Even in the first paragraph there is a premonition of disaster: lake-side trees are losing their hold in the clay: "You knew it was only time before whole bodies would be dislodged, allowed to drift, then sink. The water would seal over them again and that's how it would end: you would never know there had been trees there at all."

It is offered as a memoir. A daughter recalls how, as a 12-year-old she looked after her five-year-old brother in the holiday home built beside a lake on a patch of land acquired by her father as a wedding present for his wife. It has, however, we discover, become a flawed paradise. The parents hold parties all summer, succumb to drink and entertain their friends by calling in the children "like little dogs".

Sister and brother escape alone to the lake and its beaches where the girl feels intense love and responsibility for the boy. Slight incidents betray the cruelty and dissolution that are destroying the family while tragedy is imminent. Wonderfully impressive as a first novel, Rain will haunt the reader with its sustained lyricism.

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