BOOK REVIEW / Publish and be damned: 'Lilley & Chase' - Tim Waterstone: Headline, 15.99

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THERE IS no particular reason why the founder of a successful bookshop chain should be able to write a great novel, yet somehow you expect to learn roughly how he thinks the thing should be done. Hopes of panache run high. But it has to be said that Tim Waterstone's everyday saga of London literary folk really is quite notably flawed. The characters - there is hardly one who has

not been to Oxford or Cambridge, and who isn't introduced as mind-numbingly congenial (they turn into vipers later) - are pinned one down in exhaustive potted biographies, covering everything from religious preference to shoe size, not forgetting an inventory of home furnishings. It takes a good 50 pages of these thumping bionotes before anything happens at all.

Plot, such as it is, hinges heavily on death and betrayal. Sam Lilley, co-founder with Richard Chase of the eponymous publishing firm, has ruined his life, so he reckons, by being 'unable' to forgive his wife Hilary for her one marital infidelity 20 years ago with a smarmy actor. To assuage his masculine pride he strings along his long-suffering secretary Hazel in a 20-year affair, well knowing that she is panting for wedlock, only Hazel doesn't square with his idea of female perfection. Sam has a thing about 'visionary purity', embodied by his sister Sally who died when she was 13, and his daughter Annabel, who does a turn in the novel as a Groucho-dwelling PR. Annabel dies before she can shake any of Sam's illusions and in order that the drama level remains good and maudlin.

Gloomily featured is a gay couple composed of a septuagenarian Anglican priest who was forced to resign his religious community for openly consorting with a writer/broadcaster in his mid- twenties. The former learns he is dying of kidney disease just as the latter is declared HIV positive. The priest travels north to visit his twin sister Norah with his 'grim reaper news', as she calls it, and soon Norah, a Lilley & Chase author, is ready for reaping herself.

For comic relief there is the pastiche of publishing, which is probably largely meaningless outside the business, though a burlesque reading tour of authors in Scotland is funny and Waterstone not only ribs his erstwhile competitors at W H Smith - 'bulk and jackets were virtually their only selection criteria' - but himself: 'Tom Waterwell was damned greedy for discount'.

The final indignity to Sam Lilley - that he should be sacked from the company he founded because he took too long to mourn the death of his daughter - seems treachery beyond even book publishing standards. Never has a health and incapacity clause been employed so doggedly as plot device. And the authors or colleagues who might have stood by Sam either appear to have had character transplants or have just received news that they are about to pop their clogs.

It all seems heartily skew-whiff: many of the full-blooded characters are pigeon-holed and enraging, the caricatures random and toothless. There are some moments of panache here, but not enough moments of finesse.