BOOK REVIEW / Love among the yak jerseys Yak jumpers, white socks: 'Mothers and other Lovers' - Joanna Briscoe: Phoenix, 14.99/8.99

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The Independent Culture
WHEN this Betty Trask Award-winning novel is not documenting a mother-daughter clash that makes your hair stand on end, it is quietly gathering pace as a lesbian love story. No, daughter Eleanor does not actually cleave to mother Paula, thank goodness: they wouldn't be able to stop insulting each other long enough to have sex, anyway. But it is one of her mother's close friends, the curvaceous Selma, who becomes Eleanor's object of desire, not least because she is the only one who notices the 17-year-old and who doesn't wear lace-up boots or reek of patchouli.

This is a classic case of die-hard hippy parents reaping the scorn of their primmer offspring. It was Eleanor's deepest wish, when growing up, that instead of cooking millet pilaf and courting sundry gurus, her mother would just produce sponge cake and take her to Sunday school. Instead of hessian smocks and ribbed tights, she yearned for flowered dresses from C & A and white socks.

The Strachan parents settled in Devon as a rural backdrop to their spiritual quest and their daughters, in particular, find their gullibility side-splittingly naff. Eleanor's 10- year-old sister Poppy is a superb mixture of knowing disdain and neighing pony-madness. Locals are politely wary of the Strachans and their friends because they rhapsodise over dry-stone walls and complain about the building of new barns.

But the family turmoil goes deeper than this well-

handled satirical dimension of the novel may suggest. Briscoe delves into the resentments between mother and daughter: Eleanor's conviction that her layabout brother Rolf has usurped most of the maternal affection on offer (he has) and Paula's intense irritation at seeing her own faults duplicated in her daughter. Paula feels far more bored and trapped by her family than they would ever imagine and while Eleanor is working up to her grand passion with Selma, Mother is finding physical, if not spiritual, fulfilment with one of her ex-gurus - or the fat mountebank, as Eleanor calls him.

Selma wears proper female clothes, instead of yak jerseys, and you always know when she is in the vicinity because Eleanor starts to ache. Briscoe gets into certain descriptive grooves with a few of her characters. Selma inspires tireless comment on her pallor, her womanly scents and her milkiness (as in 'the milky largesse that she emanated lapped over Eleanor'). Likewise you can be certain that when Eleanor's father Tim appears there will soon be news of his gentleness and sweet nature. He is pretty well devoid of identity apart from these euphemisms for the ineffectuality which sent Paula into the arms of the guru.

Paula and Eleanor make up for this blandness with their prickly complexity, and the love affair with Selma itself contains some incandescent prose. The language does overheat at times, but this is a vibrant first novel - it has jagged edges, certainly, as well as excesses and random infelicities, but it is so much less predictable, and less smug, than many a more highly polished gem.