Books: Laugh? They really tried

In search of funny fiction, Susan Jeffreys travels stony-faced from medieval crypt to stately home - but finds her comic grail in a loft
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The Independent Culture
The Sloping Experience

by Ursula Bentley

Sceptre, pounds 16.99, 326pp

Simply Divine

by Wendy Holden

Headline, pounds 10, 343pp

Married Alive

by Julie Burchill

Orion, pounds 9.99, 192pp

OF THESE three comic novels, Ursula Bentley's is the one with the wham-bang start. A dead father in his coffin, an incestuous brother and sister kneeling before the catafalque and a mystery blonde bidding farewell to the dear departed. In the background is a feudal thug with a dodgy road-haulage business, some nasty secrets and the realisation that dead dad may have been up to no good. Soon, though, the book is mired down in mortgage problems, residential fees in old people's homes and thoughts on hygiene in the middle ages.

Brother and sister are an unlikeable duo but not in an interestingly villainous way. Tim is a drip with a dicky hip; Arden, the sister, is like a cow with a truncheon. Together they live in their father's old cottage. Tim gets bits of work doing accounts and Arden ranges the countryside bullying middle-aged women into buying knitwear.

It seems that long ago their dead father stole a statue of St Louis. That and other murky developments have Arden and her son Bosworth on a mission to the continent. Various skeletons are pulled out of cupboards as the whole plot comes to its woolly end. Some heavy editing and a thorough rewrite could have done wonders here.

If Ursula Bentley has drawn from her experience for the less gothic bits of the book, Wendy Holden has drawn deeply from hers for the far frothier Simply Divine. Jane, our heroine, seems to have led a life pretty parallel to her creator's. She is a sensitive, talented soul, not always well treated by men. She is far cleverer, it goes without saying, than the airhead debs who work with her on the glossy magazines Gorgeous and Fabulous. Jane is terribly loyal to her chums, and an all-round absolute brick - although a tiny bit inclined to run to fat.

Terrible puns are strewn through the book as Jane takes on the task of ghost-writing the column of society bimbette Champagne D'Vyne. She also embarks on the job of restoring the crumbling splendour of her friend Tally's stately home.

Tally's mother is having an affair with an American Indian called Big Morn, and the stately home must be sold. Efficiently written, the novel cracks along to its happy ending. It never makes you laugh, though: always something of drawback in a comic novel.

Julie Burchill's heroine in Married Alive (and this will come as no surprise) is a working-class girl from the West Country enjoying a disastrous marriage along with huge amounts of drugs and booze. She has certainly followed that well-worn advice "write about what you know", but there's a lot to be said in fiction for making things up. All this material from your own life is fine, but you're producing novels here, girls, not patchwork quilts.

Burchill takes us on another voyage round her father and lays out her working-class credentials. The plot doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, as our heroine Nicole brings her old gran to live with her in a loft apartment in Docklands while the din of marital battle roars around gran's head.

But Burchill can write. Dazzling passages light up the book, such as an account of a nurse on the very edge: "I don't know if she'd been working on a birth, or an abortion, or a painful death. But her wild eyes, and the purply sheen on her brown skin, signalled one thing: that she'd been out there the night before to a place where most of us won't go until we're forced there." There are funny bits too (Gran's "daily round of gracious living - slurping from her saucer, picking her corns and flicking them into my Etruscan urns") and great apercus: "cocaine and champagne always look like life's little luxuries, never white-knuckle necessities".

Old Jules has also used scraps of her life, but has sewn them together with razor-wire and backed it all with her fierce salty wit. Baleful, angry, with a manic energy, this is the page-turner of the three novels, and the one that makes you laugh.

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