BOOK REVIEW / No fools like the old: The laughing academy by Shena Mackay, Heinemann pounds 13.99

IF YOU put all the characters from Shena Mackay's new story collection in one room simultaneously and spent any time there, you'd be ready for the Laughing Academy (Funny Farm) yourself. Taken in manageable doses as directed, however, these creations embarrass, alarm and charm the reader nicely, with only one side-effect: for days afterwards, you may expect of the most ordinary people a raffishness they do not possess.

The average age of the protagonists in these stories is about 68 and, far from being bowed down by time, this lot are shaking their sticks and fists at it. Brawling lesbian antiques dealers shatter the peace of cosy rural life. A pair of crotchety male twins feud bitterly over which one ate the crystallised violet off their last birthday cake. Pathological do-gooders terrorise their neighbours with charitable overkill: when they're not collecting jumble for hospitals or vermin for stranded barn owls, they're answering the Helpline helpline, which has been 'established to counsel people addicted to ringing or setting up helplines'.

Very occasionally, Mackay commits overkill herself. There is revenge at a West End bookshop by the middle-class schoolmates of a bestselling author who promotes herself as a 'working-class gay icon', which could have benefited from a reduction in mayhem. Elsewhere, a spiritualist tarot reader stands up to the discipline of a motley crew of clergy who are just too motley. But largely the farce and the humanity is perfectly pitched. And there are a couple of dramatic twists too shocking to spoil.

Shena Mackay is, paradoxically, a purveyor both of radiant bursts of jewel-like descriptive prose (she is a magpie for gleaming imagery, most notably in her excellent story 'Glass') and also of the groan-making-joke extremes of social realism - where a miserable git lives in hope that someone will ask him why his tortoises are called Percy and Bysshe. (Because they're Shelley).

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