23rd August 1996 at 01:00
In a rose-scented July garden, a middle-aged woman looks back on herself as an eight-year-old in Kent. Shena Mackay's The Orchard on Fire (Heinemann Pounds 12.99) begins by striking keynotes of loss that prepare the reader for a childhood paradise well attended by serpents in the undergrowth, her lyrically evoked pastoral spiked with gashing thorns.

April Harlency has a family as happy as could be had in the 1950s. Parents Betty and Percy, late of the licensing trade, up sticks from London and take over a tearoom in rural Stonebridge. Too good-hearted to make a go of making money, they struggle vainly among smaller-minded souls. The few regulars at the Copper Kettle include two artistic ladies and the twinkly, avuncular Mr Greenidge, who has taken a shine to April. April herself finds a new best friend in Ruby, daughter of the couple who run the local pub.

The significance of what draws childhood friends together and what marks these friendships leave on adult lives is given its due by Mackay with a clarity that is intense and convincing. April and Ruby are devoted, although shame holds some things back: Ruby has a brutal father and an uncaring mother; April never tells on Mr Greenidge, from whom nowhere seems safe, even the girls' secret orchard. Mackay's prose is meticulous, sometimes unbearably funny, luminous with the discoveries and puzzlements of being a child. She also shows childhood as the obscure ordeal it so often is, one in which friendship may count for more than is ever known.

It is a childhood disappointment that gets the story going in Michael Curtin's The Cove Shivering Club (Fourth Estate Pounds 8.99). This is a labyrinthine comic yarn packed with stock Irish characters who run from the time warped cliche to the crackpot - the male characters, that is; women are confined to the novel's margins, though it is intimated that these are a lot saner than the ludicrous goings-on elsewhere.

The cove in question is somewhere on Ireland's west coast, a haven reserved for men and their misogynist, rugby-club style antics. It has its own rules and rituals, foremost the Good Friday swim, when young boys are awarded certificates for their first freezing dip. In 1955 narrator Junior Nash and his best pal Dunstan undergo this rite of passage. Curtin gets away with his heavily indulgent satire because it is so patter-rich and hectic. This is real comic writing, with not a dull moment.

Pace is breathless too in Saxophone Dreams (Penguin Pounds 6.99), Nicholas Royle's genre-bending surreal fantasy of upheaval in 1989. With the premise that such seismic and potentially cataclysmic events must surely be anticipated in the unconscious, echoed in the tides and weather, Royle sets his stage for some very strange scenarios. Frontiers dissolve, seasons reverse and wish-fulfilment works, in a landscape of nightmare and resurrection. Jazz, dreams and the paintings of Paul Delvaux connect and transport the characters: the composer Hasek, in Prague, and Ankers, a Norwegian saxophonist, Gabriela, a piano-playing prostitute in Bucharest, hospital nurse Ian in Brighton and assorted Balkan types.

An outlandish and grotesque climax takes place in Tirana before a kind of normality resumes, but the spirit of solidarity that infuses this novel lingers on as a welcome and much-needed optimism.

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