Sex, satire and society

19th July 1996 at 01:00
Bestsellers provoke mixed emotions. Like distant family members turning up to a formal wedding, they threaten to embarrass us with their brashness, their dubious conduct and their appalling style. Then all too frequently they shame us into confronting our own deep-seated snobbery, as they draw us into their storylines. At their best, they remind us of the power of narrative.

Novelist Sebastian Faulks has described his relief at owning copies of classic novels - say A Room with a View - which pre-date the film tie-in editions. A still from the film on the cover, he implies, gives it the taint of bestsellerdom.

More recently you could hear people tut-tutting about Pride and Prejudice. That "Marriage of the Century" headline in The Radio Times, the piled-high copies in bookshops, Jane Austen in the Top Ten lists - all seemed characteristic of a decade which sees any great work of literature as a marketing opportunity. How long before the name Jane Austen is itself silver-embossed, glinting garishly at us from the supermarket shelves?

But teachers more than most professionals need holidays for escape, so where better to begin than this summer's crop of paperback bestsellers? Here are a few recommendations: David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars (Bloomsbury Pounds 5.99) is mesmerising. To call it elegantly written and stylishly structured risks implying that it is heavy going. Not a bit. It is courtroom drama, social history, a love story but, above all, a moving and beautiful piece of storytelling.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum is Kate Atkinson's first novel (Black Swan, Pounds 6.99) and a cracking read in places. The First World War scenes are especially affecting. But I'm not sure that the hyperbole has done the novel or its author many favours, apart from the obvious financial one. A braver editor would have cautioned against being a contemporary Laurence Sterne and trimmed 100 pages.

With Nicholas Evans' The Horse Whisperer (Corgi Pounds 5.99) we enter the more recognisable territory of the bestseller. Evans is a screenwriter by training and his tense opening sequence soon gives way to a drama of changing relationships. In places the style jars. When a Montana cowboy looks at a mother and daughter and feels it is "like seeing the last picture of a triptych" you wonder whether he is revealing his artistic knowledge, or whether the author wishes to flap some literary credentials at us. But it's an entertaining, just occasionally toe-curling, love story.

Joanna Trollope is back on familiar ground after the unsatisfying diversion of A Spanish Lover. Her new book The Best of Friends (Black Swan Pounds 6. 99) is the usual combination of tangled relationships, frequently acute dialogue, and characters recognisable from life, particularly some gangly teenage boys. We know all the old anti-Trollope accusations: chiefly blandness, (reinforced by pastel covers which won't look out of place in the shopping trolley against a herb salad), predictability, safeness. But Trollope writes well about a significant and eternal theme - the relationships of women and men over time.

Critics have praised the first novel by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (Indigo Pounds 5.99), as a social history of pop music. Its real theme, I think, is sex. It is a simple tale of growing up in the Seventies in which Hornby shows that boys' confused obsession with sex doesn't last forever. It becomes men's confused obsession with sex. A refreshing theme of this blokish memoir is the recurring inadequacy and haplessness of men - far removed from the hunky lotharios of most bestsellers. Whether it has universal appeal, I'm not sure.

Tom Sharpe is back with Grantchester Grind (Pan Pounds 5.99). A few years back this tale of a beleaguered Cambridge college riddled with back-stabbing, financial skullduggery, dubious benefactors and besieged by a media company of dubious ethics, would have seemed like Tom at his most Sharpley surrealistic. Now it feels positively mundane - and funnier for having a more defined satirical target. There are the usual politically incorrect excesses and some lovely set-pieces such as the don who thinks he's attending a lecture on prison reform in Sierra Leone only to find that it's about male infertility and related subjects. He gets a real education.

Robert Harris follows Fatherland with his war-time thriller, Enigma (Arrow Pounds 5.99). What is so striking is a narrative that zips along and gives a powerful documentary-style level of detail. I expected to find the code-breaking theme tedious. The reality is a novel which is deeply humane and gripping - a thriller that is far more than an intellectual puzzle.

Geoff Barton is a head of English in York . He recently won the Independent on SundayPanasonic Arts Critic prize

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