BOOK REVIEW / Taking ravenous bites at life: Net of jewels by Ellen Gilchrist Faber pounds 14.99

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ELLEN GILCHRIST'S new novel seems to be set on another planet. This is Northern Alabama in the 1950s, where the rich white folks in their big shady houses have never quite come to terms with having to pay their servants and where Rhoda, the spoilt, precocious and garrulous narrator, supposes the Ku Klux Klan to be a necessary agency to keep black people from raping her. Home for the steamy summer from her freshman college year, Rhoda has more urgent preoccupations: Emily Dickinson, art in general, her sorority status, her exotic new neighbours, her wonderfully effective new Dexedrine diet pills - and the shining literary career that awaits her if only she can get free of her oppressive family. The atmosphere is seductively bizarre, as though a character from Little Women had strayed into Gone With the Wind and was breathlessly waiting for Scott and Zelda to turn up.

Rhoda first appeared in one of Ellen Gilchrist's shrewd and luminous short stories as a life-hungry nine-year-old thwarted by her charismatic father's conservative notions of a girl's place. Ten years on, little has changed, except that Daddy's bribes (a red Cadillac, a baby-blue Chevy) have enlarged to match Rhoda's inflating ambitions. As though the apron strings were made of stout elastic, the more recklessly Rhoda strives for independence, the more resonantly she snaps back, momentarily shaken, into the family net.

In a prologue written 40 years on, Rhoda/Gilchrist admits that the book began as a sequence of discrete short stories, which would explain why secondary characters loom into sudden close-up only to disappear completely by the following chapter. But the style suits Rhoda perfectly: ravenous for experience, she takes great, indiscriminate bites at life, only to spit them out when the taste proves sour.

This is a rites-of-passage novel with blood on the floor. Early on, Rhoda is befriended by Patricia, an older woman whose cool Northern intelligence and understatedly chic clothes (Rhoda's mother always wears nylons and high heels, even in a hundred degrees of heat) she finds equally enchanting. Within weeks, Rhoda has killed Patricia's only son in a drunk-driving accident: after a brief period of remorse, the episode - and Patricia - seem forgotten.

The pattern is repeated often. Rhoda, 'the most selfish and least satisfied and most sensitive and wary' of people - though not wary enough by half - returns to college, discovers boys, drops out to marry (the only way, then, to enjoy the delicious new experience of sex on a regular basis), has two babies, leaves her husband, dumps the children on her parents, returns to her husband, has an abortion (more blood), flirts with liberal politics and, even as her glittering future evaporates, remains almost chillingly resilient.

Rhoda is the kind of heroine blurb-writers call headstrong and captivating, but from whom in real life you should run a mile. Gilchrist, normally an arch-ironist, seems oddly ambivalent, ruthlessly exposing her creation's absurdities while being transparently beguiled by them. Total strangers seem able to spot Rhoda's intelligence and specialness from a hundred paces: she has only to stroll into a bookstore in a strange town to have the proprietor excitedly thrust the Oresteia into her eager hand. Only a white civil rights worker and her lawyer friend seem to recognise that Rhoda is fickle, dangerous and more trouble than she is worth.

Ellen Gilchrist is a deft reinventor of time and place. Her vivid renderings of sticky Southern heat borne in ridiculous layers of Fifties clothing, of antique dating rituals and college cliques, of Southern ways and Southern voices, make for a riveting read. As a getting-of-wisdom novel, though, Net of Jewels is distinctly, all too realistically, short on the wisdom. Near the end, when Rhoda's attempt to help a black ex-servant who has been charged with murder misfires catastrophically, she is dazedly uncomprehending: 'I don't know what I'm doing half the time . . . Why did I do this?' And then there is that prologue, from which we know that Rhoda did survive, did become a writer, but remains, if a touch wistful, as unpunctured by life, as seamlessly effusive and self-admiring as ever.