Frozen needs

14th June 1996 at 01:00
It is possible to make a novel out of anything: hunting whales, fat old men skating and breaching promises, the misunderstandings of adolescent boys, chat amid the tinkling teacups, but refrigerator design?

Mary Kay Zuravleff's The Frequency of Souls (Chatto amp; Windus, Pounds 15. 99) starts with that clear territorial advantage. Nobody has ever - at least, to my knowledge - tried to make fiction out of the minutiae of ice dispensers, water coolers, salad crispers and the like. Almost miraculously, Zuravleff makes it interesting, actually makes it matter whether specific innovations, like a glass door that polarises clear to opaque in the equivalent of an LCD display, allowing you to view the contents of your frig (as Enid Blyton unblushingly spelt it) without introducing warm room air unnecessarily ... hey! what's happening to me?

The Frequency of Souls will turn any moderately responsive reader into a short-term kitchen appliance anorak. All the more astonishingly, because it is, inevitably, not about refrigerators at all, but your basic unlikely mid-life love story. George Mahoney is the archetypal small man in a big corporation, joined, following the sacking of the Veteran, his long-time workstation partner, by the gangly Niagara Spense, an awkward girl in home-made clothes and a hearing aid, whose private obsession is catching communications from the dead on radio equipment.

This is the subtlest sort of fantasy, one that doesn't insist too much on its fantasticks, but inhabits a recognisable middle world in which ordinary relationships (a pretty wife, bafflingly, one ok, one mildly dysfunctional kid) and workaday concerns co-exist with the strangest and most improbable of ideas. Having grown up at a time when literature was given value in direct proportion to its strangeness and improbability. I find myself drawn more and more to those writers who have made their peace with the even stranger ordinariness of ordinary life: Elizabeth Taylor, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Stanley Middleton, Louis Auchincloss.

Of course, for Auchincloss, now publishing his umpteenth novel, ordinary is relative to the rather elaborate standards of the American quasi-aristocracy. The Education of Oscar Fairfax (Duckworth, Pounds 14.99) is another of his Bildungsroman, describing the awakening of a young writer against the background of a society that is losing its European certitudes and experimenting with that great American obsession: democracy.

Like almost all of Auchincloss's characters, Oscar is a curious mixture of innocence and self-possession, marked out by breeding and education to be a relatively tolerant reflector of a society over which his class hovers but which it does not presume to understand. The book's most potent symbol is the cathedral on lower Broadway, commissioned and built for his grandfather, the Bishop. The fact that it is neither completed nor able to be completed suggests something of the unfinishedness of his class in a world dominated by results.

A good spell for Duckworth. Only a sporadically interesting fiction house,but they have also taken on that clever writer and critic Clare Colvin, and her first novel A Fatal Season (Pounds 14.99) is an astute and often penetrating study of the moral perils of role playing. Lily is an actress who having failed to find the roles commensurate with her ambition finds herself acting out a part that she cannot shed. The other significant pillar among the tiny, enclosed list of dramatis personae is the director Lambert (nice Jamesian names in this one) who more confidently but also ruthlessly negotiates the dividing line between fantasy and reality, between stage tears and blood and the real thing. This is the real thing. Needless to say, a little tinge of magic doesn't hurt a novel.

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