Books: A Mike Leigh heroine

MAD ELAINE by Helen Stevenson, Anchor pounds 9.99

MADELAINE Butcher is one of those characters whose life is so unremittingly awful that you long for a happy ending. Mad Elaine, as she is nicknamed at school, has suffered enough metaphorical bee stings and dog bites - her favourite film is The Sound of Music - to last a lifetime.

We meet her at the age of 30: she is the product of an Unhappy Family (a squeaking, timid mother and a domineering, brutal father); works as a branch librarian with Lydia, who is conducting a furtive affair with the scoutmaster; wears elasticated skirts to accommodate the fact that she's "on the large size"; and has a mole on her face. Not a Hollywood heroine, perhaps - more in the Mike Leigh mould - but one who is nevertheless chirpy, down-to-earth and a Great Reader, with books her salvation in a world empty of romance. "I kept thinking, life will get better and better, these are what you might call minor setbacks - till one day I realised it didn't get better; if anything it got worse. That's when I started writing. Better out than in."

The book is full of these little cheer-up-it-could-be-worse truisms. Madelaine's life, which the whole novel revolves around, sounds deceptively mundane and ruefully comic: "She said you want to get yourself a snappy haircut, sign up for classes in self-awareness ... I said, 'Lydia Harris, if you think a person can weigh 14 stone seven and not be self-aware you're a greater fool than I thought.'"

And then, in a sudden, disconcerting gear-change between reality and fantasy, Martin Bradfield walks into the library. He's a storybook hero, but with plenty of plausible little quirks: Kitchener's eyes, a crooked chin, tawny teeth, a vague claim to be a writer, and a smoker's habit. Madelaine can't help falling for him, and when he rings her at work - the first and only call she's had for 12 years - she can be forgiven for thinking that dreams come true. The small-town set-up is an oddly appropriate forum for a tussle between fantasy and reality, which descends into nothing short of farce.

At times, Stevenson veers close to the sentimental, but always pulls back from the edge. Madelaine admits "I'm not saying all this isn't painful," but never wallows in misfortune: she is too practical and too steeped in Yorkshire ways. Madelaine and her entourage have all the little idiosyncrasies you'd expect, and some you wouldn't (gleaned, no doubt, from the author's northern upbringing). But Stevenson refuses to make her into a stereotype or a puppet: she is never less than human, even in her fantasy world, and that is why this book is so rewarding.

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