BOOK REVIEW / Wimbledon uncommon: 'They Came From SW19' - Nigel Williams: Faber, 14.99

HARDY'S Wessex; Trollope's Barsetshire; Joyce's Dublin. Will people in future times refer likewise to Nigel Williams's Wimbledon? It certainly can't be ruled out, in view of the fact that They Came From SW19 is the second novel of his in a row to be set in the lawn tennis mecca and suburban stamping ground of the Wombles.

The hero of The Wimbledon Poisoner, Williams's last book, found it hard to convince publishers that there would be an international market for his nine-volume Complete History of Wimbledon. Its global sales prospects might have shot up if it had been able to include the local events reported in this new novel by the 14-year- old narrator, Simon - the apparent spacenapping of Mr Far, his friend and fellow ufologist, and, just as bizarre, the sighting of his recently deceased dad in Stranraer Gardens.

Simon himself is in two minds about his home town. If extraterrestrial aliens are about to take over the planet, then Wimbledon is as probable a starting point as any, he thinks. But he is no passionate fan of the locality. When his father reveals in a seance that his spirit has been condemned to return and roam round SW19, Simon's reaction is to wonder why death brings so few privileges: 'He might not deserve the Elysian Fields, but he hardly deserved that.'

For the bulk of the novel, as the hero becomes embroiled in his mother's cranky church and nearly causes a schism with his announcement of alien landings, Williams has some enjoyably knockabout fun at the expense of such easy targets as spiritualism and power-jostling within sects. But every so often you sense a bleaker book (about the perpetually frustrated desire to believe in something) struggling to get out and only properly surfacing in a sudden rush at the end.

There are hints of the darkness to come in the narrator's tone, which is dotted with the strenuously defensive, jocular cynicism of adolescence ('Betray? I mean, be serious] Who said we trusted each other in the first place? It is nearly the year 2000, my friends') and with the blokey use of the epithet 'old' ('a bit of the old gay sex'; 'without damaging the old insectlife'; 'I could have been old JC himself'), which gets to be a bit of an old bore. You wonder, at times, if something has happened to cause this iron breeziness.

Nothing quite prepares you, however, for the startling revelations of the last few pages. The paranormal and extraterrestrial phenomena are found to have mundane and deeply depressing explanations, with the ironic effect of convincing an emotionally cauterised Simon that only alien possession can account for the behaviour of some humans - not least his father. 'I'm staying as far out of it all as I can,' he resolves, giving the impression he'd like to put in for a species-transfer. It's as though Clive James suddenly got the boot as the book's presiding spirit and was succeeded by Jonathan Swift. It feels a bit of a cheat, a belated attempt to convert entertaining teenage fiction into serious adult literature.

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