BOOK REVIEW / The holiday snaps back: Foreign parts by Janice Galloway, Cape pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
IN THE era of cheap ferry tickets, the trip across the channel has become as banal as catching a bus. The opening of Janice Galloway's second novel (her debut, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel prize) seems overwritten; a too-careful detailing of petrol smells, sugar sachets, vibrating decks and rowdy kids. Is Cassie, through whose eyes we experience most of the action, really as rubbed raw by life and holidays as all that? Or is Galloway dramatising the thoughts that stray through the mind during any break from routine, and is it the fact of writing about them which gives them a weird sense of permanence?

Cassie is obviously one of those people whose preoccupations and problems take the next boat out after them, so it's surprising that we glean information about Cassie and Rona only slowly. One of the novel's themes is the terrifying gulf between even the closest friends and lovers; the account of the holiday is interspersed with Cassie's musings on her holiday photographs, mostly of unsatisfactory male companions. As the women chug through Northern France, Cassie reading from the preposterous guidebook, Rona taking care of the translating, the mineral water, the travel kettle and the driving, we sense the delicate shift in Cassie's consciousness: her growing realisation that she's dissatisfied with men, and her attempts not to fall out with this lovable but baffling companion who provides the best emotional sustenance she has ever known.

Galloway's chariness with background sends the reader up several blind alleys. How old are these women? Is this their first holiday together? Is this going to be a 'lesbian' novel? Cassie worries about her inability to appreciate some of the medieval masterpieces they view on their tour, but this turns out to be something more subtle than a mere lack of education. It comes as rather a shock to find out that Cassie, so worried about doing things differently, and the diligent Rona are, if not very sophisticated, then at least veteran travellers.

The book reassures that no matter how many times you've done something or been somewhere, the humiliations remain as burning, the pleasure as sharp as ever. They make only the briefest, most mistrustful contact with the French (the landlady with the 'pencilled-on eyebrows, hair red at the tips with white roots like a sheep on fire' makes a rare vivid impression); thus is any temptation to picturesque Mayle-ism resisted. What remains is the bittersweet record of an imprisoning consciousness trying to escape from itself. If the book does finally degenerate, slightly, into a feminist tract, we have so much sympathy with the characters that it barely matters.