BOOK REVIEW / Invasions from the other side: Women and ghosts - Alison Lurie: Heinemann, pounds 12.99

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The Independent Culture
SIX YEARS after The Truth About Lorin Jones comes this collection of ghost stories. They can't hope to match the witty acuity of that novel, but they do carry a cumulative charge, and Lurie's variations on a theme display a virtuosity that is all the more effective for being simple. All the women in these tales use the supernatural as a cover for their own or others' hubris, deceit or silliness. Much of the topography - the Key West of Lorin Jones and the London of Foreign Affairs - will be familiar to Lurie devotees, as will several of the characters. In Key West we meet Lorin's handyman hunk, Mac, while 'The Highboy' features Fred Turner and his wife Roo (nee Zimmern), separated and suspicious in Foreign Affairs, now reunited and with children. Another Zimmern, Celia, features in 'In the Shadow'. These sidelong glances at people we hardly know reinforce the sense that, despite the new genre, we've come home to Lurie territory. And, as is usual there, women, treated with both sympathy and irony, take centre stage.

Cool beauty Celia is pursued by the malignant spectre of a past lover whenever she is alone with another man -'Not only is he married, his cock is only three inches long,' he whispers maddeningly - but she meets her match in a spirit-worshipping landlady who is almost as mercenary as she is. In 'The Pool People', a tiresome, rich Key Westerner is haunted by the two men who built her pool, spirits her granddaughter has made into imaginary friends: 'They said, when was my Grammy coming to swim at night again? We want to play with her.' This gives the tone - rather obvious and not particularly scary set-ups, but with here and there a pleasurable twist: the pool people are blue.

It's always left open to the reader to minimise the supernatural element. In 'Counting Sheep', Janey, a Wordsworth scholar, is more amused than convinced by the idea that her vanished colleague has been turned into an intelligent-looking sheep after leaving his watch on a magic wish-stone in the Lake District. In 'Ilse's House', Dinah, now having second thoughts about her impending marriage, admits that she only started seeing the spectre of her lover's ex-wife wedged in the space between the fridge and the kitchen wall after Greg described her once sitting and sulking there. Perhaps the cleverest story is 'The Double Poet', in which glamorous Karo McKay, once just plain Carrie Martin, comes to believe she has a malevolent double who is taking up spare gigs on her poetry-reading circuit, signing copies for fans, giving banal quotes to the press and even bedding male groupies. Karo's initial smugness gives way to terror - and a much improved writing style - as she faces the extinction of her own persona. This is a witty cautionary tale about how talent can corrupt its possessor. Thankfully, judging by Lurie's own cool insight in these deliciously light pieces, that will never happen to her.

(Photograph omitted)

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