BOOK REVIEW / Something nasty in the sheep dip: 'Scenes Originating in the Garden of Eden' - Ann Oakley: HarperCollins, 14.99

Click to follow
DESCRIBED as a 'sociologist and writer' (note which comes first), Ann Oakley is best known for the television adaptation of her first novel, The Men's Room, that brought us Harriet Walters's nudity and Bill Nighy as the cad-you-love-to-hate. This clumsily named novel (Oakley's fourth) creates a new context for her perennial theme of the war between the sexes: the pastoral idyll pursued by city folk. Shocked to encounter a flasher in Lincoln Cathedral, Flora Penfold, 38 and childless, quits city, feckless live-in actor lover and responsible job as Director of Islington Arts Centre for rural solitude in the Meltshire village of Little Tickencote, funded by flute lessons and a cartoon strip called Rural Rosey.

Before you can say 'organic sheep', she has fallen for the earthy charms and Dirk Bogarde eyes of a Marxist vegetarian farmer with homeopathic leanings who edits a pre-capitalist European monthly and runs a furniture-stripping business. But unpleasant portents disturb Flora's dreams of Eden. 'Dead fish, dead lamb, dead bird, crashed piano, stolen stilettos and stamped nipples', comments the authorial voice. And that's not all. Nasty things happen to the sheep and to young Fanny Watkins, whose body is beached on the shores of Jacob's Water, a reservoir that drowned villages, farmland, family ties and a web of interlocking secrets.

Water carries a heavy cargo of symbolism interpreted for us by psychoanalyst Olga Tuchensky-Kahn, another off-comer to the village and conveniently dying of cancer to the strains of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. 'I'm only a psychoanalyst,' complains Olga briskly, 'I can't be expected to explain real life.' But Olga is serious, and so are her conversations with detective-story writer Jane Rivers, who has settled in the village for undisclosed family reasons. Add Flora's dead father's manuscripts, and the plot becomes as thick as soup.

Real country folk - the ones who never got away - are treated with gentle condescension. There is Percy the builder with his cold kipper and cucumber sandwiches and termagant of a wife who blocks Flora's despairing messages until her lavatory develops peculiar tics ('Return flow.' Olive nods wisely. 'Not nice, is it?'); and Doris Wates, mother to university-educated Pete, who drinks Camp coffee and extols the virtues of 'eddication'. Lord Oliphant, local landowner, is cut larger, though still in pasteboard style: 'Life doesn't tax him a great deal - only the Inland Revenue does that.'

Oakley's famous wit seems a little tired at times. The pert tone begins to grate, as does the self-conscious use of the continuous present tense which underlines the novel's uneasy placing between fiction and fantasy, between the 'real' world of Islington and the 'fictional' world of Meltshire that fails to create a parallel reality.

Yet the novel is worth reading for its old-fashioned integrity and for what Oakley has to say about men and women and the way we live our lives. 'Man is a natural being,' Pete Wates tells Flora. 'It's important to believe we can change the world.' Jane Rivers (Oakley's alter ego?) shares his optimism when she considers her own writing: not great art, perhaps, but she is doing something with her life that transcends mere survival.