Books: Angst and aliens down on dysfunction farm

Deep in an idyllic countryside, squalor and savagery lurk. Hilary Mantel enjoys an anthropological novel of Deep England
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by Penelope Lively

Viking, pounds 15.99, 218pp

WHERE DOES one choose to live, newly retired, financially secure and with no ties of sentiment or duty? Somewhere picturesque, of course. Stella Brentwood, a social anthropologist, chooses Somerset. "All these books. Dead give-away," says the removal man. "He did not specify what it was that was given away."

She settles in her new cottage amid the usual detritus of expatriate life: the scuffed and crazily-stamped passports with the corners clipped, and the bundles of photographs showing sunburnt incarnations of an earlier self. Childless and unmarried by choice, Stella has abandoned clingy lovers because her work has been more important to her.

Now her work will not let her go. She has arrived in a place where public life is almost non-existent, and she cannot help but contrast it with the more vital communal life of the Maltese and Egyptian villages she has known. She watches her neighbours - though not closely enough, as it turns out - and tries to make sense of them.

This observer's stance separates her from the life around her. "You are still carrying around a mental note-pad and pen - trash them," she tells herself. Her position is analogous to that of the writer.

Writers cannot retire any more than they can take holidays. Their expertise has shaky foundations, because the presence of the observer changes the behaviour of the observed. And the writer shares the anthropologist's grave limitation: "We see only what we already understand."

As in her earlier novel, Heat Wave, Penelope Lively shows herself an astute and unsentimental portraitist of rural England, that highly-subsidised wasteland of suicidal angst and hazardous chemicals. Stella's neighbours are reserved, absent or hostile.

In the case of the Hiscox family, they are actively dangerous, and the passages in which Lively describes the routine squalor of the Hiscox bungalow, its yard and outbuildings, are the most grimly enjoyable in the book. A withdrawn hard-drinking father, a hopeless granny and two sullen teenage boys creep and slouch through their days under the lash of Mrs Hiscox's tongue. They are a family dysfunctional even by the standards of the Starkadders in Cold Comfort Farm.

The source of Karen Hiscox's colossal anger is never revealed, but we get a powerful sense of her scary presence as she deals out blows and disinformation. She will not tell her sons where they were born or where they spent their early lives. She has confiscated their past.

They are an extreme example of the deracinated folk Stella finds all about her. She is an student of lineage and kinship structures:what is she to do in a society where no one know or cares if their great-grandfather was a turnip?

By its nature, Stella's day-to-day life is uneventful, and such events as occur are recollected by her. This hands Penelope Lively a problem, because it is hard to inject vigour and impetus into the story.

In its considerable pleasures and also its gentle pace, has a good deal in common with Alison Lurie's latest novel, The Last Resort, in which an elderly naturalist struggles to finish a final book. Whatever her subject, Penelope Lively's writing is clean and elegant, and her clarity of exposition is such that it seems ungrateful to wish there were a little less of it.

Much of the novel's wry comedy is carried by the relationship between Stella and Richard, a retired civil servant, the widower of one of Stella's old friends. Richard's favourite word seems to be "agreeable". He displays the pitiful anxiety of a man who knows he is a caricature of himself, but can do nothing about it. He is full of goodwill and a desire to be useful. Finally he suggests that he and Stella cohabit, putting the proposal in a letter or memorandum divided under these heads: "PRACTICAL ADVANTAGES - EMOTIONAL DITTO - PHYSICAL RELATIONS."

He is a modern Mr Collins, and his billet-doux deserves to appear in many anthologies. Stella, being a modern woman, doesn't wait around for D'Arcy, but packs a bag. The reader is sorry for her, because wherever she goes she will be taking herself with her, along with some unhealed griefs, and some hopes baffled. And, of course, her index cards, and notebook, and pen.

Hilary Mantel's latest novel is "The Giant, O'Brien" (Fourth Estate)