BOOK REVIEW / Beyond fringe benefits: 'After Colette' - Joan Lingard: Sinclair-Stevenson, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
APPARENTLY Joan Lingard was a friend of the performance artist Nancy Cole, who once adorned the Edinburgh Fringe with her one-woman show about Gertrude Stein. Cole mysteriously vanished in 1987 and the niggling void led Lingard to write this novel about a similarly single-minded and vanished artiste whose own obsession was Colette.

The most diverting dimension to Lingard's fictional quest for a missing Colette impersonator is the clash of Franco-Scottish relations. Whereas the French are portrayed as a race who know how to make earth-moving hot chocolate, to give up their families for love and to ooh-la-la through life, the Scots spend their time down the 'steamy', gossiping viciously over the laundry.

Yet it is in the Edinburgh scenes, where the novel's own prehistoric monster, Granny Balfour, does her grumbling thing, that Lingard is truly engaged and engaging. As suspicious of the Yanks when they finally turn up for the Second World War as she had been of the French nurse who bewitched her son in the war before that (and whose cooker never did pass the frequent Balfour spot checks), Granny is a woman of impeccable xenophobia.

So how is it that her granddaughter, Amy, becomes a Colette impersonator? And why is she missing? Because this is a tale of two grannies. Amy's other grand-mere, Berthe Grenot, was born on the same day in 1873, and just a street away from, Sidonie- Gabrielle Colette. They were bosom friends until Colette was snatched up by the Paris wit Willy Gauthier Villars and embarked on her life of marriages, salons, music-halls and literary heights.

Meanwhile, Berthe's baker husband was to die young of a flour-related disease, but not before burning Colette's early books in his bread oven, thereby swelling the ranks of male oafs in this book. Berthe is forced to take in laundry (laundry begins to look

thematic) and heads a female line of impressionable descendents who keep up the connection with Colette. These girls invariably meet her when they are 12 years old and receive such a frisson over chocolat chaud in blue and white cups that they are captives ever after to romance, blue stationery and floral paperweights. They are also prone to disappearing. Berthe's daughter, Eugenie - the one who failed to fit in at the 'steamy' - and then eventually Eugenie's own daughter, Amy, both ghost when least expected.

While the basic structure of the novel is dictated by the meandering search for Amy - with numerous tableaux of the Edinburgh Festival, including ones featuring the real-life Nancy Cole - four generations come to life within this framework with considerable colour and zest. Other Colette fanciers approaching this novel, however, should be warned that her brief appearances are focused through a fuzz of candyfloss.

(Photograph omitted)

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