BOOKS: ICTION IN BRIEF

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2Into The Forest by Jean Hegland, Arrow pounds 5.99. Set in the near future when a war has brought about the gradual collapse of industrialised America, Into The Forest tells the story of two orphaned teenage girls struggling to survive in the remote forests of Northern California without the things they used to take for granted - electricity, cars, telephones and plentiful supplies of food. They naively believe things will get back to normal eventually, and they will be able get on with their lives: Nell will go off to Harvard, and Eva will become a professional ballet dancer as planned.

However, they gradually realise that help will never come and that they must take responsibility for their own survival - and that means relinquishing any hope of returning to a world where the social infrastructures are intact and functioning. For a first novel, this is an ambitious work, weaving together several strands: on one level it's a sci-fi novel with a strong eco-message, urging mankind to look after the earth or face the consequences; on another level, it's a lyrical and evocative coming- of-age-story. But perhaps above all it's an intensely moving novel laden with feminist messages and fascinating musings on the metaphysics of human existence.

Though the theme of female survivors in a post-apocalyptic world has been explored before in other novels - Lessing's Memoirs of a Survivor and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale are just two that spring to mind - Hegland's spin is highly original and has a surprising denouement. But one of her few weaknesses is carelessness over loose ends and she does have a tendency to over-emphasise the feminist perspective. Still, Hegland handles her subject matter with a deftness that would give many experienced writers pause for thought, and the end result is a beguiling and haunting tale of redemption. Evie Arup

2 Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters Virago pounds 9.99. There's a huge amount of history bursting from the cleavage of this first, fabulous, fin-de- siecle frock of a novel. It's fashioned into an unstoppable read, a sexy and picaresque romp through the lesbian and queer demi-monde of the roaring Nineties. This is a time when "gay girls" meant working girls, and a "masher" was a gentleman dandy. There was working-class music hall, and there was upper-class sapphistry, and there was socialism.

Nan, our heroine, is an ordinary wide-eyed oyster girl from Whitstable who falls for male impersonator Kitty Butler at the Canterbury Palace of Varieties. Lured to the very heart of London as Kitty's lover, dresser, and eventually, her double-act partner, she winds up, naturally, betrayed and brokenhearted - only then to embark upon her own sordid and sexual adventures as a butch young "tom" ingenue.

Tipping the velvet isn't what you do to your seat when you stand up in the theatre, you know. Oh no. It's what you do, ladies, when you go down on another lady. Or it's what you used to do, before all the louche romance went out of lesbian lust and she just came over and sat on your face.

It wouldn't do to give the rest of Nan's story away. But imagine Jeanette Winterson, on a good day, collaborating with Judith Butler to pen a sapphic Moll Flanders. Could this be a new genre? The bawdy lesbian picaresque novel? Whatever it is, take it with you. It's gorgeous.

Mel Steel

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