BOOK REVIEW / For Celia read Alice: 'Dreamhouse' - Alison Habens; Secker, 9.99

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The Independent Culture
CELIA SMALL has fantasised about marriage since childhood, mapping out her future in a lace-edged scrapbook and leaving a space for the name of her fiance. At last her engagement party approaches but, by a quirk of communal living, two of her loathed housemates have arranged parties for the same night. When the ceiling heaves with music and her formal dinner party disintegrates into a parody of all she has rehearsed, Celia escapes upstairs. There she discovers a large blue caterpillar and a trail of strangely pungent jam tarts which tempt her away from her judgemental family and into a party of Lewis Carroll fanatics. The evening gets curiouser and curiouser.

Prissy, nave and fixated on wedded bliss, Celia is an incongruous heroine for the Nineties, but as a candidate for a psychodelic voyage of self-discovery, she is ideal. In her search for an identity she is mistaken not only for Alice (whose name is an anagram of her own) but also for a feminist filmmaker, star guest of party number three.

Alison Habens' first novel reveals a Wonderland more frenzied than the one Lewis Carroll created, though a drug dealer dressed as the White Rabbit highlights the hallucinogenic tendencies of the original. Characters fuse their author's dialogue with his, alluding to or quoting Lewis Carroll verbatim - so much so that they chide Celia for not knowing her lines. His vision is also used to play neat tricks: Celia's mother, wearing a queenly bodice, mutters that her daughter is 'out of her head'; Humpty Dumpty prefaces his speech about proud verbs with a reference to 'postmodernity'; and Celia herself recites: 'The time has come, / . . . To call off many things / The honeymoon, the happy home, / The golden wedding rings.'

Habens does not simply rely on Lewis Carroll as a springboard. The novel is directed by word games and aural conceits of her own. When these succeed, phrases glint. It is refreshing to read a first-time novelist who tastes and savours the sounds and meanings of words. She can write sensuously too. But she concentrates on the particular at the expense of the whole. The logistics of balancing three house-parties and various characters in search of their own or others' identity - however cleverly conceived - requires careful control and the novel would have been better shorter. Sometimes, too, she doesn't seem quite sure how to pitch her more serious concerns - a discussion about rape in the 'trial' scene goes awry, and statements given in court flatten rather than blend with an otherwise effervescent tone.

These errors of over-inclusiveness do not diminish Habens's powers of invention. It may seem easy to borrow from Lewis Carroll, but to do so and succeed shows a real fascination with - and ear for - words. Like Carroll, Habens has a talent for playfulness so deft that it conceals its craft.