BOOK REVIEW / A girl's best friends: 'Safe in the Kitchen' - Aisling Foster: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99 pounds

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AISLING FOSTER grew up with the story that Romanov crown jewels had been hidden for more than three decades in a safe built into a local Dublin kitchen. Based on this fine Irish rumour, and on a firm but unsentimental grasp of the birth of Irish nationhood, she embarked on a cracking first novel in which history and fiction are in lively accord.

In 1919 it so happened that a Russian delegation and an Irish delegation, each fresh from their respective revolutions, met on the American fund-raising circuit, where the Irish were making a killing. Persuading the Yanks to part with their money were Eamon de Valera, his rough-hewn right-hand man Frank O'Fiaich and Frank's newly wedded wife Rita, a Dublin Castle Catholic who would spend a lifetime failing to put a polish on her husband's manners.

Rita is destined to fall simultaneously in thrall to a lesbian called Nina in the Bolshevik camp and to the breathtaking jewellery Nina has sewn into her lingerie. Pragmatically, a deal is struck between the impecunious Russians, who hand over their ex-monarchs' treasures as security, and the Irish, who are flush enough to provide a healthy loan. Rita comes out the secret custodian of the loot back in Eire, though she cannot resist mischievously flashing the odd bauble in public.

Frank is so busy boring for Ireland he wouldn't notice if Rita were wearing borscht, though de Valera (or 'Dev' as they call him) informs her that sparkling gewgaws do not befit the wife of an Irish patriot. In fact, since the O'Fiaichs set out side by side on their grand Republican adventure, Rita is progressively marginalised, kept in the dark - or, as the title's double entendre has it, safe in the kitchen. 'You will see, Ritushka,' her erstwhile Russian seductress had warned her, 'to us they not give power but babies only.'

Yet until 1955, by which time a loan to the Communists has become an embarrassing political time bomb, Rita still has the crown jewels of Russia to dandle and cherish. More reliably delightful than any of her three children, their timeless gleam is hers to personify and dote on of a Sunday afternoon, or to sneak out to a reception because 'she felt sure they appreciated the night out'.

The author, too, indulges herself - with excited imagery and playfulness - in these sybaritic scenes. Paradoxically, such prodigality comes as a breath of fresh air, in contrast to the men's po- faced nationalism with its purely theoretical emphasis on wholesome family values and the virtues of austerity.

In her dexterous balancing of political and emotional truths, and in her gift for enchantment, Aisling Foster has done more than just produced a promising debut: she has arrived with a flourish.

(Photograph omitted)