BOOK REVIEW / The first crack that ruins the Ming: Sin - Josephine Hart: Chatto, pounds 11.99

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The Independent Culture
IN AN attempt to elevate her novel above rock-bottom schlock, Josephine Hart employs several devices to divert and flummox the reader. The first is the Double-Take Metaphor. This is a descriptive image which seems reasonable until a) you start to think about it - 'a high purity that almost festered in the eye' - or b) it is taken to unwise extremes: 'Grief swelled her face as though all the fluids of the body, lymph and blood, were surging in a wave of revolt, crashing against the rocks of bone structure.'

Next is the Irksome Paradox - 'Nothing prepared me for my hungers, which, if not assuaged, would surely devour me' (chew on that) - which goes hand in hand with the Waffling Profundity, a device frequently signalled by the words 'as the saying goes': ' 'If there is love in this heart', as the saying goes, 'then there is love in that heart. For one hand claps not without the other.' ' Or the 'profundity' may be slipped in unannounced to resonate orientally: 'It is the first crack that ruins the Ming.'

But does Hart reveal anything about sin in the book, as promised? She might have, if her narrator Ruth weren't so unconvincing as a force of evil. Ruth's overwhelming obsession is the jealousy she feels towards her adopted sister Elizabeth, a golden girl who she thinks usurped the parental attention and love due to her, the natural child. There are enough riches to go around - grand house, family publishing company, cashmeres and silks - but that is not the point. Ruth is deeply childish and a spoiler. Yet she constantly over-eggs her rhetoric: 'Like Satan before the Fall I came to hate the very nature of goodness, to fear its power.' What she has actually done, at this point, is to pinch Elizabeth's doll and favourite mug. She will graduate to pinching Elizabeth's slips, stockings and eventually her husband Charles, but after such dire portents one is primed for a bloodbath or worse.

Although Ruth keeps telling us she is 'truly beautiful', a lush brunette with winged eyebrows, the image that thrusts itself forward is of some wired-up pre-teen with hands on hips, stamping her foot as she insists: 'I was a spiritual, malevolent creature.' Sure you were, lovey.

And the sin? After some mutual backscratching with Elizabeth's stiletto, Ruth is said to be 'trailing Charles in his terror and delight towards the hidden face in the rock which unknowingly he had begun to carve'. Gosh. Elsewhere, Ruth tells Charles 'I rage for you' and then tells us: 'The fire jumped suddenly between us. He was engulfed.' And that, O prurient reader, is your lot.

I'll give her this: Josephine Hart doesn't often resort to a bona fide cliche. She makes up her own. Perhaps this is what Sam Goldwyn was after when he said 'Let's have some new cliches.'

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