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BOOK REVIEW / High spirits again: An imaginative experience - Mary Wesley: Bantam, pounds 14.99

MARY WESLEY's novels are romantic romps with a slightly gamey flavour, jaunty in tone and mixing sex and death, love and class, in a series of improbable scenarios. More enterprising than most romantic romps, they are nevertheless set in a fantasy world in which the main interest is in the bringing together of the fateful pair.

Her ninth book, An Imaginative Experience (the title, we are told, is taken from a remark about love made by A N Wilson - stranger things are to follow) begins with a promising scene on a train from the West Country, involving an unpleasant bird-watcher, a spirited heroine, a man called Sylvester and a stranded sheep. It proceeds fairly briskly, after a late arrival at Paddington, to reveal a little more about those involved, sketch in some new characters, tie up a few loose ends and get the heroine and Sylvester together, on the brink of love, for eight chapters (out of 33) before the final capitulation.

Wesley is even more irrepressible than usual here, giving us the benefit of her views on newspapers, racism, dogs and gardens, and pausing only for alcohol (her people commonly imbibe a variety of strong drinks at all hours yet get drunk surprisingly quickly) or meals ('a most excellent Stilton which he ate with Bath Oliver biscuits'). Her snobbery about such things as carpets, garden ornaments and expensive scent goes with a sharp eye for appearances. She demonstrates the surprising vulgarity of the enfant terrible.

Sometimes this is part of the naughtiness which Wesley likes to foster; as when the heroine's mother tells her life story to the bird-watcher: 'I married an architect, she began. He impregnated me with his sperm. You are shocked by the word sperm? Some men are.' Or when Sylvester describes his American hosts as 'giving the impression of being contentedly marinated in sexual juices'. Elsewhere, it is part of a general unsteadiness of tone; the result, perhaps, of having her plot unfold by means of clipped dialogue.

The spirited heroine, exhausted and in despair, seeks out the comfort of religion. A kindly old priest offers help which she rejects, remarking in passing on the altar: 'How lovely, how surprising. Most Catholic churches in England are hideous.' If this novel, like others of Wesley's, is televised, it will be interesting to see how that scene plays.