BOOK REVIEW / Scots pine north of the border: 'These Enchanted Woods' - Allan Massie: Hutchinson, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
AT ITS best, Allan Massie's writing has a level- headed, unfussy quality that can put you in mind of Orwell's line about good prose being like a window-pane - transparent, so that nothing of the writer stands in the reader's way. With Massie, it's tempting to stretch the simile: if this is a window, then it's double-glazed, so that precious little noise or heat gets through. If you sit down and make a list of everything that happens in These Enchanted Woods - men seducing men, women seducing men, women seducing women, men seducing women, marriage, adultery, attempted rape, a road accident, arson, blackmail, fraud, imprisonment - you realise that the book is packed with incident. While you're reading it, though, you hardly notice.

The action revolves around the same set of heavy-toping Perthshire gentry who featured in Massie's The Last Peacock - the unhappy, self- mocking Colin, his beautiful, emotionally vacant sister Fiona, their brother Andrew, a Tory MP with a taste for young men, and a large supporting cast of family, lovers, ex-lovers and local society. The main narrative thrust - though the word suggests a sense of direction that the book doesn't really have - is Tony Lubbock's pursuit of his first love, Fiona, now unhappily married to Gavin, the alcoholic local laird. Tony, the son of Ukrainian immigrants made good, is now a big wheel in the City: it's that trusty favourite, old money versus new money. This is practically satire, in fact, except that Massie determinedly avoids any point of view - the carefully neutral subtitle is 'A Comedy of Morals'.

'Comedy' pitches it a bit strong, perhaps, and the few overtly humorous touches can be wearing - Ginny Prepper, blockbusting American author who believes she's the reincarnation of Mary Queen of Scots, would have been a cliche 60 years ago; her appearance in a novel set in the 1980s makes you hesitate to trust the author's historical perspective. The book's saving grace is its general air of detachment: for all the incursions of the wide world, this is a dreamy, unreal Scotland, with the attraction of an Arden threatened by the developers, or Blandings Castle with sex scandals. You can't imagine anybody getting so steamed up about it as to resign from the Booker panel, as Nicholas Mosley did over Massie's Sins of the Fathers, but it is a curiously likeable book.

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